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Essay: Is Drug Addiction a Disease?


A lot of people argue over whether drug addiction is a brain disease or something caused by other stuff, too, like childhood experiences, stress, and money struggles. I’ve seen addiction up close with people I love. And I got to say – it’s complicated. Drugs do something to your brain that makes stopping hard. But at the same time, calling addiction just a brain disease leaves out a lot of essential parts of the picture.

In my experience, addiction is about more than physical dependence on drugs frying your brain circuits. It also depends on whether you’ve got people around to lean on, feel stressed out all the time, or go through tough stuff growing up. Addressing addiction requires looking at all those parts – biological, psychological, and social. It’s the whole package.

In this essay, I will break down arguments on both sides – for and against the brain disease model. Then, I’ll share my perspective on why we need to blend biology and personal life context to understand addiction truly. My goal is to help explain why it just isn’t accurate to label addiction as a plain and straightforward brain disease. There are always deeper reasons why people struggle.

Arguments that Addiction is a Brain Disease

Those saying addiction is mainly a brain disease point to various evidence showing that ongoing drug use causes lasting changes in how the brain works:

  • Drugs Kidnap the Brain’s Reward System

Experiments on animals reveal how repeatedly taking drugs hyper-sensitizes the dopamine system – the brain’s feel-good chemical messenger (Grifell et al., p.160). So, over time, drugs cause excessive dopamine to flood the reward pathway. This strengthens unconscious ties between the drug and feeling pleasure. Essentially, the motivational driveway in the brain gets hijacked towards wanting the drug.

  • Lasting Changes in Brain Communication

Brain scans of addicted individuals display apparent abnormalities in areas like the prefrontal cortex that handles judgment, decision-making, and self-control. Neurons in these circuits don’t connect up properly. Imaging shows that communication between different brain regions is off. The control centers of the brain get reset to depend on the drug being present.

  • High Rates of Relapse after Treatment

Over half of people treated for addiction end up back on drugs within a year, even after stopping for a while. To supporters of the disease model, this shows an underlying biological weakness that stays there, waiting to drag people back (Grifell et al., p.163). Just like how stopping medicine rarely cures chronic health problems like diabetes or hypertension.

  • Feeling Out-of-Control

Folks struggling with addiction often report feeling powerfully gripped by cravings where seeking out their drug becomes all they can think about. They say it seems beyond their ability to resist or consciously choose not to give in (Ersche et al., p.15257 ). This feeling that drug use is compelled from deep inside fits with the idea that motivation circuits in the brain have been taken over.

So, all together, these kinds of findings depict addiction as a brain disease where drugs forcefully and permanently make systems in the brain go haywire, like a hijacker taking over control of a plane.

Arguments against Addiction as Only Brain Disease

At the same time, experts concerned about the brain disease label point out important realities like:

  • Reversible Brain Changes

While addiction changes the brain, the neural impacts are not usually permanent or irreversible like in actual brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. For instance, imaging shows that prefrontal thinning can completely bounce back after someone maintains abstinence for a while. This suggests addiction represents extreme but recoverable adjustments in brain function rather than actual irreversible damage.

  • No Clear Biological Test Exists

There is also no diagnostic blood test or brain scan that definitively confirms addiction or proves someone has lost their self-directed choice. Contrast this with something like cancer, where medical tests offer objective proof. The lack of a clear biological marker fails to confirm addiction as a cut-and-dry disease state (Ruisoto et al., p. 65).

  • Ignoring Psychological and Social Drivers

Significant risk factors for developing addiction, like childhood trauma, poverty, isolation, and stress, have more to do with someone’s life experiences and environment than biology. Framing addiction as just a physical brain disease tends to ignore these psychological and socioeconomic drivers almost wholly.

  • Threatens Motivation and Hope

Calling addiction hijacked brain risks makes people feel powerless to get better like they are at the mercy of damaged biology. But believing you can make positive changes is hugely vital for recovery motivation. The disease label might sabotage this hope and self-confidence.

So essentially, critics argue that though substance issues change the brain substantially, people retain self-control capacity, and external factors contribute too(Heilig et al., p.1715). A narrow biological focus risks ignoring strengths and contexts central to managing addiction.

Personal Perspective

As a person who has lived with a partner battling drug addiction, I believe that both of the perspectives contain a certain truth supporting the argument. The tendency to use drugs over and over again makes it very difficult to stop since it renews reward and self-control circuits in multiple ways. At the same time, several factors play significant roles in bringing about the addiction process. These aspects are either linked to the person emotionally or related to daily life activities, including neglect, trauma, or maybe poverty. Thus, addiction cannot only be classified as a brain disease but also a situation that is directly associated with environmental, psychological, and biological elements.

There are stages of addiction, and therefore, it can be classified into different levels. At the very lowest rank lie the biotic weaknesses that probably are passed from one person to the other through gene inheritance or changes that occur due to early indulgence in substance abuse. Some other key factors that trigger drug addiction are caused by lack of social and economic support in the childhood stages, which leads to hardships and mental health problems. Combining these factors creates a pyramid that becomes hard to break once one becomes a victim.

This is closely interlinked with what I have observed while supporting my partner in her healing process. I would say a diseased brain is accompanied by not only physical yearnings but a series of complications, such as significant life stressors involving the loss of a job or disagreements with the family. Managing my addiction to my partner needed a lot of personal work and dedication and not just undergoing doctor treatment. Seeking therapy sessions for past exploitation and healthy relationships with friends play a vital role in the recovery journey. Viewing drug addiction from different angles validates the biopsychosocial approach, which offers a recovery base at numerous levels.


To sum up, it is evident that addiction significantly alters brain setups that revolve around self-control and motivation. It is sensible that a significant percentage term it as a neurological disease, but the model falls short by not considering the psychological factors. To better understand addiction, one should reflect on the broader picture, not leave behind the social and psychological aspects.

Works Cited

Grifell, Marc, and Carl L. Hart. “Is drug addiction a brain disease.” American Scientist 106.3 (2018): 160-167.

Heilig, Markus, et al. “Addiction as a brain disease revised: why it still matters, and the need for consilience.” Neuropsychopharmacology 46.10 (2021): 1715-1723.

Ruisoto, Pablo, and Israel Contador. “The role of stress in drug addiction. An integrative review.” Physiology & behavior 202 (2019): 62-68.

Ersche, Karen D., et al. “Brain networks underlying vulnerability and resilience to drug addiction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.26 (2020): 15253-15261.


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