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Brain biology could influence drug addiction

A study by the University of Cambridge has found that certain abnormalities in the structure of the brain could increase the chances of addiction. The fact that some people may be born with a higher chance of developing addictive tendencies should help increase awareness to the fact that addiction is a disease.

There has long been a belief that certain people may, through no fault of their own, be born with what has been termed as an 'addictive personality'. Conventional wisdom claims people with this personality type have an inherent trait that makes them more likely to become addicted to certain substances or behaviours. Following this, it makes sense that these individuals would be more susceptible to developing an unhealthy dependence to illegal drugs, alcohol, nicotine, gambling and sex.

It turns out that conventional wisdom is partially correct in this case. Some people are more likely to develop an addiction than others, but for a different reason than previously stated. Simply put, personality has little or no bearing on the issue. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have established that people who suffer from addiction tend to have different brain structures, and that this abnormality is with them from birth. At this point, it is necessary to establish that anyone can become dependent on damaging substances or behaviours, not just people with this differing brain structure.

In their study, which was published in the journal, Science, the researchers studied 50 different pairs of siblings. One of the siblings suffered with some form of addiction while the other did not. They tested the siblings by measuring their impulse control in certain tasks while at the same time, monitoring their brain activity. They found that these pairs scored lower across the board for impulse control when compared with other people. Further brain scans of the siblings revealed abnormalities that are not present in the brains of the majority of the population. Two such abnormalities include less dense white matter in the front portion of the brain (that suggests poorer self-control) and an increase in grey matter in the middle portion of the brain (indicating a higher likelihood of forming habits). Since both the addict and non-addict sibling displayed the same abnormalities, it is reasonable to conclude that their different brain structures could be a potential cause of addictive behaviour, not an effect of the addictive behaviour itself.

Biological basis for addiction

Lead author of the study, neuroscientist, Karen Ersche, said the following: “There is a biological basis why people suffer from addiction. This study suggests that some brains predispose some people to become addicted, should they decide to use drugs.” Ersche went on to say: “Drug addiction is the disease of the brain. It's not a lifestyle choice. It falls into the same category as other psychiatric disorders that are serious and have a basis in the brain.”

The main question raised by this study appears to be: why do some people with these brain abnormalities become addicts while others are able to avoid the trap? Choice of lifestyle, environmental factors and general life experiences could all provide possible answers to this question. What this research has made perfectly clear is that drug addiction is a disease of the brain, not a personality flaw or a sign of being weak. The study highlights the importance of proper education and the necessity for addicts to receive support, guidance and therapy.

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