In her lecture at TEDMED, Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, talks about why the brain can develop addiction problems. 

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Abnormalities in brain function in drug addicts

Animal studies have long shown that taking drugs affects the dopamine system in the brain, the brain's reward system. At the same time, such findings do not provide a good explanation for why drug addicts lose control, and almost forcibly indulge in the drug again and again.

Nora Volkow explains that conditions in the functioning of the brain may help to explain why an addicted person will be more vulnerable to losing control over the use of the drug.

She says that brain imaging techniques have shown that the brains of subjects with cocaine addiction show that there are less dopamine 2 receptors (DA D2) in the brains of drug addicts. These receptors regulate frontal areas in the brain, ie areas in the brain that enable us to exercise self-control.


Similar mechanisms demonstrated in obese people

Volkow and co-workers have shown that the same mechanisms apply to people with morbid obesity. Here, too, brain imaging techniques have shown that there are fewer dopamine 2 receptors in the brain, which helps to explain the lack of control in these people when it comes to controlling food intake. 

The point of the studies was that they gave a neurochemical signature on what the brain of a person with addiction problems looks like.


- Like driving a car without brakes

Both obesity and substance abuse problems have been stigmatized as a moral failure associated with a lack of self-control in people with such problems, according to Nora Volkow. It's problematic the way she sees it.

- I have never met an addicted person who wanted to be addicted. And I have never met an overweight person who wanted to be overweight.

- Can you imagine what it is like to want to stop something, and not be able to? You try and you fail, and you try again and you fail again, and again. And you begin to hate yourself for not being able to keep track of yourself.

- Simply put, it's like driving a car without brakes. No matter how much you want to stop, you will not be able to, Nora Volklow explains.


Recommends preventive measures

Due to our genetics, our developmental history, our social context, some of us will have a higher vulnerability to develop addiction problems than others.

She recommends that we emphasize the prevention of both drug-related problems and obesity by offering real alternatives and opportunities to people who are vulnerable to either drug or overeating problems. 

- Our challenge is not to know how to prevent, but to put it into action. It's about offering real alternatives and opportunities. For example, why can we not offer healthy food? Why can we not establish environments that stimulate - instead of hinder - physical activity?


Here you can see the video