Is Addiction a Disease? The Disease Model of Addiction | CASAColumbia

Addiction as a Disease

Addiction as a Disease

Addiction involves changes in the structure and function of the brain, which can result in compulsive substance use. These changes in the brain may be brought on by risky substance use or may pre-exist.  

The Disease Model of Addiction

Like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, addiction has specific risk factors and, if not effectively treated, can lead to other illnesses and even death.

Recent studies have found that the same changes in brain structure and function that can be seen in addiction involving nicotine, alcohol and other drugs appear to occur in relation to other compulsive behaviors such as gambling and certain sexual and food-related disorders, such as bulimia and compulsive eating.

Substance Use Can Change the Brain

People feel pleasure when basic needs such as hunger, thirst and sex are satisfied. In most cases, these feelings of pleasure are caused by the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Most addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of these same chemicals that are associated with pleasure or reward.

Over time, continued use of addictive substances can alter the structure and function of the brain. When these changes occur, a person may need the substance to feel normal. The individual may also experience intense desires or cravings for the addictive substance.

Prolonged Substance Use

Long-term use can also dramatically affect judgment and behavior. In some cases, it can drive a compulsion to obtain and use nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, even when the individual knows the consequences are harmful or dangerous.

These changes in the brain can remain even after the person stops using substances. These changes leave those with addiction vulnerable to physical and environmental cues that they associate with substance use, also known as triggers, which can increase their risk of relapse.

CASAColumbia. (2012). Addiction medicine: Closing the gap between science and practice.  

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