Addiction takes many forms: gambling, shopping, food, video games, alcohol, tobacco, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll...
Okay, maybe not rock 'n roll – but the fact remains addiction is a disease that many sufferers refuse to admit to themselves or to loved ones. Some suffer in silence while others are given full public displays. (See the recent onslaught of celebrity “news” highlighting actress Lindsay Lohan’s rehabilitation stints.)
When science began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, drug addicts were thought to be lacking in willpower or somehow morally flawed. It was these views that helped shape society's responses to drug abuse, leading to punitive rather than preventative and therapeutic actions. It wasn’t until years later that addiction began to be seen for what it is: a public health crisis and a disease that affects both the brain and behavior with several biological and environmental factors at play.
The good news is there are several treatment options available today for addictions that grip persons of every race, religion and socioeconomic status.
Some recent research “twofers” have addiction scientists excited. For example, Naltrexone, a drug normally used to curb drug and alcohol cravings, has been shown to help kleptomaniacs resist compulsive urges to steal. And Ezlopitant, a compound known to suppress alcohol cravings in humans, has been shown to decrease consumption of sweetened water by rodents in a recent study, which may help food addicts and compulsive eaters some day.
"This finding suggests a possible link between the neurochemical pathways for addiction and compulsive eating," says principal Ezlopitant investigator Dr. Selena Bartlett, director of the Pre-Clinical Development Group at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, an affiliate of the University of California, San Francisco.
Scientists at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have discovered that increasing adult neurogenesis (increasing the normally occurring process of making nerve cells) might be a means to combat drug addiction and future relapse.
“Treatments that increase adult neurogenesis may prevent addiction before it starts, which would be especially important for patients treated with potentially addictive medications," said Dr. Amelia Eisch, associate professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern and senior author of the study.
This is great news, considering the National Institute on Drug Abuse as recently as 2008 estimated that 1.85 million U.S. residents depended on or abused prescription opioids, which include painkillers such as hydrocodone and OxyContin.
Finally, a once-monthy injection of the drug Vivitrol, when combined with counseling and psychosocial support, has proven effective in keeping alcoholism in check. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that alcoholism kills 75,000 Americans every year, shortening the lives of victims by three decades.
The catch is these options will only aid those willing to ask for help. Acknowledging addiction and its power over the individual is often a huge internal conflict for sufferers, who feel ashamed and guilty they can’t simply “will” themselves out of the compulsive desires that drive these dangerous urges.
This week is Addiction Awareness Week. If you or someone you know is battling an addiction, it’s time to take that first – and often most challenging – step by admitting powerlessness against the addiction and asking a friend, healthcare provider or family member for help. The stakes – financial ruin, illness, death – are too high not to.