Wired for addiction

Beginning addiction intervention services can be an overwhelming task. First, you have to admit to yourself that you have a problem. This can make addicted individuals feel inferior and weak. New neuroscience research, however, suggests that we are all wired to become addicted.

Brian Anderson, a cognitive neuroscientist from Texas A&M University, has proposed that mechanically, addicts and non-addicts are much more similar than previously believed. According to Anderson, we are all designed to develop attentional biases that mimic addictive behaviour.

He demonstrated this in his study through a classical conditioning procedure – a conditioning practice in which a stimuli is linked to a response through repetition. In his study, he linked a stimulus with a drug-free reward and found that even those with no history of addiction responded to cues in a way that would equate to a drug addict relapsing.

Through habitual behaviour, drug cues become hardwired to capture the attention of drug-dependent individuals – which then promote the individual to participate in drug usage or crave the drugs. Anderson’s study suggests that even individuals who are not addicted are very susceptible to being conditioned to have strong responses to hardwired “addictive” reward cues as a response to stimuli that have been reinforced.

Personal cues have also been found to have a profound effect on drug behaviour. Personal cues are unique to each individual and can cause acute cravings for an addictive substance or rewarding behaviour. Personal cues can include revisiting a location in which you have used the drug, spending time with friends who you have done the drug with, or certain smells that you associate with drug use. A May 2015 study found that personal cues have a longer and stronger effect on cravings substance-specific cues do. Examples of substance-specific cues include being in the presence of a pipe, syringe, lighter, or any other drug paraphernalia.

The new research from Anderson suggest that addiction-related attentional biases are not a unique phenomenon of drug abuse. Rather, Anderson proposes that any type of attentional bias is rooted in its ability to provide pleasure from the reward centre of the brain. Thus, when an addict has trouble abstaining, Anderson argues that more often than not, they simply have trouble ignoring stimuli associated with their drug use. Then the individual will see the stimuli, and start to crave the substance as a function of the inadvertent classical conditioning they have undergone. Thus, addicted individuals are wired the same as non-addicted individuals, but have been conditioned to be addicted.

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