The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) is hoping that its new definition of addiction, which it describes as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry,” will help both physicians and loved ones of individuals struggling with addiction to better understand the challenges of getting clean.

Although addiction is normally categorized by the behaviors that go along with it, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in an interview with the Associated Press that “The behavioral problem is a result of brain dysfunction.”

Research during the past 20 years has led doctors to conclude that addiction takes over different parts of the brain, thus classifying addiction as a chronic brain disorder and making treatment more involved than simply rerouting behavior.

Specialists from ASAM likened treatment for addiction to treatment for other chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, calling it an ongoing process.

Doctors say both age and genetics are factors in a predisposition to addiction. However, Volkow said, environmental factors can still lead to addictive tendencies and alter processes in the brain:

“Even if you’re not biologically vulnerable to begin with, perhaps you try alcohol or drugs to cope with a stressful or painful environment, Volkow says. Whatever the reason, the brain’s reward system can change as a chemical named dopamine conditions it to rituals and routines that are linked to getting something you’ve found pleasurable, whether it’s a pack of cigarettes or a few drinks or even overeating. When someone’s truly addicted, that warped system keeps them going back even after the brain gets so used to the high that it’s no longer pleasurable.”


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