Drug Addiction

Characteristics and Phenomenology of Drug Addiction

Substance Addiction Graphics courtesy of News 18Opens in new window

Addiction involves the loss of control over drug use, or the compulsive seeking and taking of drugs despite adverse consequences.

Drug addiction is a chronic and recurring disorder characterized by drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior that individuals continuously engage in despite dire consequences (Camí, J., & Farré, M. 2003).

Drug addiction has been recognized as a neuropsychiatric disorder with biopsychosocial consequences for the individual, the community and the healthcare system (Robbins & Everitt, 1999).

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) includes the diagnosis category of Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders, with specifiers for opioid (e.g., heroin); stimulant (e.g., cocaine); and alcohol intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal.

In neuropsychiatry, animal models of drug dependence have revealed that there are shared and also distinct neurobiological pathways involved in the reinforcing and addictive effects of different drugs of abuse: the addictive effects of cocaine are dependent upon the release of dopamine in the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system; the dopaminergic and dopamine-independent systems are involved in acute reinforcement of opiates such as heroin; dopaminergic and opioid peptidergic systems seem to be involved in nicotine addiction; and the reinforcing nature of ethanol seems to occur as a result of a number of neurobiological pathways involving, but not limited to, the release of dopamine, opioid, and serotonin neurotransmitters (Koob & Nestler, 1997).

In addition to the neuropsychiatric facets of drug addiction and how it forms, there are neurocognitive and psychological factors to be considered in the decision-making of drug-dependent individuals. Individuals with drug dependence have consistently shown impaired decision-making when compared to healthy controls (Myers et al., 2016).

Studies of risk-takingOpens in new window have shown that chronic drug use and dependence tends to leave individuals vulnerable to poorer decision-making (e.g., continually choosing to use illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine despite the adverse effects on social, legal, and health areas of life; choosing to steal money to buy drugs despite being on parole from jail; or leaving infants at home on their own to meet a drug dealer and make a purchase (Torres, Megias, Catena, Candido, & Maldonado, 2017).

Research has shown that drug-dependent individuals’ ability to perceive and evaluate the outcomes of a decision is impaired (e.g., heroin-dependent individuals’ abilities to consider the different consequences of a situation or action and then making a decision based on the best scenario are impaired), and so they tend to make riskier decisions than those without drug dependence (Wittwer, Hulka, Heinimann, Vonmoos, & Quednow, 2016).

  1. Camí, J., & Farré, M. (2003). Drug addiction. The New England Journal of Medicine, 349, 975 – 986.
  2. Ekhtiari, H., Victor, T. A., & Paulus, M. P. (2017). Aberrant decision-making and drug addiction – How strong is the evidence? Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 13, 25 – 33.
  3. Hefner, K. R., Starr, M. J., & Curtin, J. J. (2016). Altered subjectives reward valuation among drug deprived heavy marijuana users: Aversion to uncertainty. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125(1), 138 – 150.
  4. Koob, G. F., & Nesler, E. J. (1997). The neurobiology of drug addiction. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 9(3), 482 – 497.
  5. Ortega, L. A., Solano, J. L., Torres, C., & Papini, M. R. (2017). Reward loss and addiction: Opportunities for cross-pollination. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 154, 39 – 52.
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