Health Watch -- Understanding Addiction

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The key to understanding addiction is knowing that addiction changes the way the brain works.

Friends and family members of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may become frustrated that their loved ones can't seem to shake the habit, no matter how much damage that habit is doing. Psychiatrists at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say begging addicts to stop won't work because their brains have been changed by their addiction. Arguments that might make sense if the brain were working normally don't work for an addict.

Dr. Eric Nestler, UT Southwestern's chairman of psychiatry, says addiction weakens the will, making it difficult for an addict to just stop drinking or using drugs. Addiction changes the brain, even down to the molecular level. Drugs like cocaine, heroin and alcohol change the way the reward pathways of the brain work - the parts of the brain that make you feel good. These changes are what lead to addiction, when the brain needs the drugs to get the reward response.

Dr. Nestler, who was recently named one of the nation's outstanding research scientists by Parade magazine, says the good news is that an addict can recover. Dr. Nestler is working on research to identify the molecular and cellular changes that drugs like opiates and cocaine can cause in the brain with chronic use. He's also studying the genetic and environmental factors that make some people more likely to become addicted.

This research may lead to more effective treatments for addiction.

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May 2004

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