“If we as psychiatrists can embrace addiction as a disease of the brain that disrupts the systems that allow people to exert self-control, we can reduce the stigma that surrounds this disorder—for insurance companies and the wider public—and help to eliminate the shame and suffering that accompany the addict who experiences relapse after relapse after relapse.”
That was the message that Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, brought to APA members at the 59th Convocation of Distinguished Fellows at APA’s 2015 annual meeting in Toronto Monday evening.
Volkow opened her speech with a moving and emotional story of how she learned of her grandfather’s lifetime of chronic alcoholism and suicide; he had died when she was a girl of 6 in Mexico, but Volkow’s mother did not reveal the truth of her grandfather’s addiction and death until many years later, when her mother was dying and after Volkow had already achieved distinction as an addiction expert.
It was a dramatic illustration of the despair experienced by people who have an addiction and continue to engage in a behavior that they may know is destroying them—a phenomenon that Volkow has devoted her career to understanding. She gave a brief overview of her own research and the evolution of addiction science, describing how it was once believed that addiction was a disorder of hyperactive reward centers in the brain—that addicts sought out drugs or alcohol because they were especially sensitive to the pleasure-inducing effects of dopamine.
But Volkow explained that in recent years research has revealed just the opposite: that addicts are actually less sensitive to the effects of dopamine. They seek out drugs because of the very potency with which they can increase dopamine in the brain, often at the expense of other pleasurable natural stimulants that do not increase dopamine so dramatically. And it is the neurobiological reflection of the phenomenon of “diminishing effects” that addicts typically report clinically: they require more and more of the drug to get a similar effect.
“This was completely counterintuitive,” Volkow said.
Moreover, she emphasized that addiction to drugs disrupts multiple systems in the brain—not simply reward centers—that govern the ability to plan, anticipate, and change behavior in response to changing circumstances. Volkow said it is this phenomenon that accounts for the “craving” experienced by addicts and alcoholics in response to environmental triggers—often leading to what she characterized in the account of her grandfather’s death as that “one last moment of self-hatred.”