Bioethics Blogs

Mental Health Month: Is Addiction a “Brain Disease”?

May being mental health month, I thought it timely to discuss one of the most costly mental health issues we face today: addiction.

Addiction exacts a huge toll on our society. In purely monetary terms, the National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs costs the U.S. $559 billion a year. This price tag results from increased health care costs, decreased productivity, and crime, and does not even include the cost of prescription drug abuse, which is on the rise. And as anyone who has experienced addiction up-close can attest, the personal costs of addiction are enormous. Addiction destroys families and lives.

If we want to fight addiction, it almost goes without saying that we need to understand it: what causes it, how it operates, and how it can be prevented. To this end, neuroscientists have made incredible strides in recent decades in their understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying addiction (see here for a recent example). Along with this new understanding has come a new view of what addiction is. Many neuroscientists now subscribe to the view that addiction is a disease of the brain. According to the “brain disease” model, addicts who start using (for whatever reason) have a very difficult time kicking the habit because use of the abused substance causes chemical changes in the brain. Once these changes occur, the behavior is no longer voluntary but a result of abnormal physiology.

This view of addiction-as brain-disease has successfully found its way into mainstream thought—go to almost any informational website and you will see this framing (replete with evocative language describing how addiction “hijacks” the brain).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.