Experts lament that in the past decade, treatment for addiction which still currently involves rehabilitation, counseling, therapy and staying in sober living homes later on, has changed very little. In terms of understanding the physical basis of addiction however, experts and researchers have made a lot of progress, thanks largely to advancements in the field of medical technology.

Through the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, researchers have begun to understand just how the brain of an addict goes awry, which regions are affected and what chemicals are not balanced. Researchers are also coming to understand just how profound the effects of addiction on the brain are by commandeering memory-making processes and taking advantage of emotions. Armed with their new discoveries, researchers have formulated new medications that show promise in staving off cravings that cause an addict to relapse. Perhaps the biggest obstacle addicts face on the way to recovery is overcoming the intense cravings that spur them to relapse.

Salience and Addiction

Joseph Frascella, director of the division of clinical neuroscience at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), describes addiction as “repetitive behaviors in the face of negative consequences or the desire to continue something you know is bad for you.”

According to scientists, addiction is an extremely destructive behavior that should have been discarded long ago as humans evolved. Unfortunately, Dr. Nora Volkow explains that, “Humans… will always want to experiment with things that make them feel good.”

As people experiment with drugs, the abuse of such substances taps into the brain functions that enabled the early humans to survive in a harsh environment.

The human mind is encoded to concentrate deeply on what neurologists coined salience. Salience refers to special relevance. An example of salience is when we instinctively try to get away from something that we perceive as a threat. Food and sex are also salient in that they help the human species to survive.

Drug abuse exploits the human mind that is programmed to pay close attention to salience. When exposed to drugs, conditioning, decision-making skills, memory systems and reward circuits all kick in to produce an overwhelming pattern of uncontainable cravings. This goes for other forms of behavior addictions such as gambling and sex as well.

One study showed that pathologically obese people who are also compulsive eaters displayed hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain that process food stimuli, inundating the pleasure center. This leads some experts to say that anything enjoyable can be addictive.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The reason why not all of us become addicts is because the other, more analytical areas of our brains are capable of assessing consequences and supersede the need to look for and feel pleasure.

Brain imaging sheds light on this matter. In a study led by Dr. Marin Paulus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, they observed meth addicts who were participating in an intensive 4-week rehab program. The researchers found that those who were more inclined to relapse were also less inclined to finish tasks that entail using cognitive skills. They were also slow to adjust to new rules.

This indicated that those individuals might also be less skilled in using the analytical region of the brain while doing decision-making activities. Upon observation of the participants’ brain scans, the researchers found that there were indeed decreased activation levels in the prefrontal context, the area of the brain where rational thought supersedes impulsive behavior. Whether the reduced activity in this part of the brain is the result of chemical abuse is hard to tell. However, it is true that this lower activation levels are present only in some of the participants, indicating that there was something inherent that is exclusive to them.