So the Huffington Post runs a sub-blog on Addiction and Recovery and sometimes they present excellent reporting (for example, the piece on opioid addiction by Jason Cherkis who actually interviewed my boss, Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek, for the article). But more often than not, they present quite variable reporting on addiction. A recent interview with psychologist Marc Lewis, PhD is one such example.
Based on my own neuroscience of addiction background, I unfortunately find a number of Dr. Lewis’s claims not supported by scientific evidence and I believe the spread of such false statements can have the exact opposite of his intended effect—hurting more addicts rather than helping them. I do not claim to be the consensus voice of the addiction field but present my own arguments based on my own research and work done in the field. I also admit have not read any of Dr. Lewis’s books and am merely responding to the statements made in his interview. I include references at the end of the post.
The original interview between Carolyn Gregoire, Senior Health and Science Writer for Huffington Post and psychologist Marc Lewis, PhD
The questions (Q) by Carolyn Gregoire in the original interview are in bold, Dr. Lewis’s response (L) is italicized, and my response (S) is the un-italicized larger-size text.
Q: What’s wrong with the disease model of addiction?
L: I know what scientists are looking at when they say addiction is a disease. I don’t dispute the findings, but I dispute the interpretation of them. They see addiction as a chronic brain disease — that’s how they define it in very explicit terms.
My training is in emotional and personality development. I see addiction as a developmental process. So the brain changes that people talk about and have shown reliably in research can be seen as changes that are due to learning, to recurrent and deep learning experiences. But it’s not an abnormal experience and there’s nothing static or chronic about it, because people continue to change when they recover and come out of addiction. So the chronic label doesn’t make much sense.
S: The brain is a physical organ that operates under defined molecular biological principles. Drugs are physical chemical substances that perturb the molecular function of the brain. It is true that addiction is a process that can take months or even years to develop but the end result is a physical neurobiological change in how the brain functions [1, 2]. And when neuroscientists say chronic brain disease—or what my lab says A disease of the brain with behavioral manifestations—what we mean is that repeated drug use has caused a change is brain function which in turn results in a change in behavior. That doesn’t mean that this change is irreversible but, like other diseases, the first step to treatment is recognizing the underlying biological cause. Defining addiction as a chronic brain disease is not a judgment or interpretation of the development of addiction (which definitely does involve a learning and memory component [3, 4]) but is a statement asserting that drug addiction and drug cravings, compulsive drug use, and relapse are ultimately based on physical changes in the brain. It is important that we recognize this because otherwise we would not be able to treat it with effective and safe medications, in combination with other behavioral and psychological therapies.
Q: What’s problematic about the way we treat addiction, based on the disease model?
L: Well, lots. The rehab industry is a terrible mess — you either wait on a long list for state-sponsored rehabs that are poorly run or almost entirely 12-Step, or else you pay vast amounts of money for residential rehabs that usually last for 30-90 days and people often go about five to six times. It’s very difficult to maintain your sobriety when you go home and you’re back in your lonely little apartment.
What I emphasize is that the disease label makes it worse. You have experts saying, “You have a chronic brain disease and you need to get it treated. Why don’t you come here and spend $100,000 and we’ll help you treat it?” There’s a very strong motivation from the family, if not the individual, to go through this process, and then the treatments offered in these places are very seldom evidence-based, and the success rates are low.
S: I strongly agree with this assessment. The rehab industry and many 12-step programs are ineffective, expensive, and rarely based on scientific evidence. The primary reason is that for decades addiction was thought of a problem of “spiritual weakness” or “lack of will power”. In reality addiction is a medical disorder based on physical neurobiological processes that make it seem like an addict has no “will power”, when in reality that addict’s brain has been hijacked to crave the drug compulsively and practically uncontrollably. However, again, I disagree that calling addiction a disease is what funnels people into rehab clinics. I believe it is the stigmatization of addiction that precludes treatment by doctors (unlike for every other disease), which in turn fuels admission into the rehab industry. Sadly, effective medications exist (such as methadone and buprenorphine for opioid addicts) that can flick a switch off in an addicts brain, satisfying their craving and allow them to live a normal live [5, 6]. Or medications such as naltrexone may be effective at reducing drinking in alcohol addicts but is not widely used [7, 8]. It is only recently that public acknowledgement of the biological basis of addiction and appropriate shifts in public policy are beginning to take place. Importantly, addiction medicine is beginning to become incorporated into medical school education and the first accredited residency programs in addiction medicine have been announced.
Q: There are lots of ways to trigger a humanistic response besides calling something a disease. So you would say that telling people who are in recovery for addiction that they have a “chronic disease” is actually doing them a disservice?
L: Well, the chronic part is really a yoke that people carry around their necks. [Proponents of the disease model] say that this is important because this is how to prevent the stigmatization of addicts, which has been a standard part of our culture since Victorian times.
But I think that’s just bullshit. I don’t think it feels good when someone tells you that you have a chronic disease that makes you do bad things. There are ways to reduce stigmatization by recognizing the humanity involved in addiction, the fact that it happens to many people and the fact that people really do try to get better — and most of them do. There are lots of ways to trigger a humanistic response besides calling something a disease.
S: I agree that stigma is a huge problem with the treatment of drug addiction and mental health. Admitting you are an addict or depressed or know someone who suffers from these disorders is accompanied with unnecessary shame and fear of admission of the problem. I disagree that acknowledgement of medical/neurobiological basis of these disorders (ie calling them diseases) increases stigma but in fact do humanize patients. It helps alleviates shaming–both public and self–and can help an addict to seek evidence-based, medical treatment. Acknowledging the chronic nature of the disorder is not intended to make people feel bad but is merely truthfully stating the nature of the problem in hopes that it can be properly treated; denial can be lead to false and ineffective treatments.
Q: It can be difficult to comprehend the idea that something as severe as a heroin addiction is a developmental process. Can you explain that?
L: First of all, let’s include the whole bouquet of addictions. So there’s substances — drugs and alcohol — and there’s gambling, sex, porn and some eating disorders. The main brain changes that we see in addiction are common to all of them, so they’re not specific to taking a drug like heroin, which creates a physical dependence. We see similar brain changes in a region called the striatum, which is an area that’s very central to addiction, which is involved in attraction and motivational drive. You see that with gambling as much as you do with cocaine or heroin. So that’s the first step of the argument — it’s not drugs, per se.
From there, it’s important to recognize that certain drugs, like opiates, create physical dependency. There’s a double whammy there. They’re hard to get off because they’re addictive, like sex or porn is, but they also make you uncomfortable when you stop taking them. People try to go off of them and get extremely uncomfortable and then they’re drawn back to it — now for physical as well as psychological reasons.
S: It is true that all addictions involve the striatum and there are similarities between the different addictions but to say that ALL addictions affect the brain in the exact same way is an absurd simplification. Different drugs absolutely DO affect the brain differently and have differences in addiction potential and relapse potential. To say addiction to heroin is identical to addiction to alcohol is identical to gambling addiction and therefore has nothing to do with the specific drug or behavior is just plain wrong. A wealth of evidence is gathering that addictions to different drugs progress differently and effect different brain systems, despite certain changes common to all . For example, even opioids such as morphine and oxycodone, whose pharmacology are probably the best understood of any drug of abuse (they interact with mu opioid receptors ), have different behavioral and neurobiological effects that may affect addictions to the individual drugs (see my blog post). In a paper published by the lab I work for, the Kreek lab, cocaine administration in drug naïve mice (mice that have never had cocaine in their system) results in a rapid release of dopamine . In contrast, some studies show that self-administration of an opioid drug only increases dopamine in rats that have already been exposed to the drug and not naïve animals . The differences in the dopamine profiles between cocaine and opioids obviously means that how these two drugs affect the brain is different and is drug-specific! These are just a few small examples demonstrating the scientific inaccuracy of lumping all addictions into one general category or making the false claim that addiction has “nothing to do with the drug” (just as reducing cancer to a single disease is entirely inaccurate and harmful for its treatment).
Q: In the case of any type of addiction, what’s going on in the brain?
L: The main region of interest is the striatum, and the nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the striatum. That region is responsible for goal pursuit, and it’s been around since before mammals. When we are attracted to goals, that region becomes activated by cues that tell you that the goal is available, in response to a stimulus. So you feel attraction, excitement and anticipation in response to this stimulus, and then you keep going after it. The more you go after that stimulus, the more you activate the system and the more you build and then refine synaptic pathways within the system.
The other part of the brain here that’s very important is the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in conscious, deliberate control — reflection, judgment and decision-making. Usually there’s a balance between the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, so that you don’t get carried away by your impulses. With all kinds of addictions — drugs, behavior, people — the prefrontal system becomes less involved in the behavior because the behavior is repeated so many times. It becomes automatic, like riding a bike.
S: Dr. Lewis’s assessment is basically correct. The core of the reward circuit involves dopamine-releasing neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) projecting to the nucleus accumbens (NAc; a part of the ventral striatum), which primarily drives motivated behavior and is involved in reinforcement of drug taking behavior. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex acts as a “stop” against this system and one model of addiction is the motivated-drive to seek the drug overpowers the “stop” signal from the prefrontal cortex. However, addiction is far more complex beyond just this basic system. Numerous other circuits and systems (hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, just to name a few) are also involved and each individual drug or rewarding stimuli can affect these circuits in disparate ways .
Q: What would a scientifically informed approach to addiction look like?
L: That’s a really hard question because the fact that we know what’s happening in the brain doesn’t mean that we know what to do about it.
A lot of recent voices have emphasized that addiction tends to be a social problem. Often addicts are isolated; they very often have difficult backgrounds in terms of childhood trauma, stress, abuse or neglect — so they’re struggling with some degree of depression or anxiety — and then they are socially isolated, they don’t know how to make friends and they don’t know how to feel good without their addiction.
S: As I’ve stated above, a scientifically informed approach to addiction treatment already exists but is not widely used. However, one day an addict will hopefully be able to consult with a medical doctor to receive appropriate medications specific to their addiction, which will be combined with individual counseling by a psychiatrist or psychologist and a specific cognitive behavioral therapy or other psychological/behavioral therapy. The combination of medications and psychological therapy administered by trained medical professionals will be the future of evidence-based addiction medicine. Development of additional medications and/or psychological therapies for future treatment absolutely requires solid scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, which includes use of randomized control trials, prior to widespread implementation.
But to call addiction primarily a social problem once again ignores all the basic neuroscience research that shows the powerful effects drugs have on the brain. It also ignores the prominent effect of genetics and how, due to a random role of the dice, an individual’s risk of becoming an addict can drastically increase [2, 13]. Plus the opioid epidemic that is currently sweeping the nation effects nearly every strata of society regardless of socioeconomic status, age, gender or race, and therefore cannot be explained simply by the hypothesis that addicts are people that are socially isolated. Why someone starts using drugs in the first place and how exactly they progress from a casual drug user to an addict are incredibly complex questions that scientists all over the world are attempting to answer through rigorous research. Being socially isolated or experiencing childhood trauma may certainly be factors that eschew some people towards the development of addiction but are definitely not the only ones.
Q: So what can we do about that?
L: Other than certain drugs that can reduce withdrawal symptoms, there’s nothing much medicine can offer, so we have to turn to psychology, and psychology actually offers a fair bit. There’s cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, dialectic behavioral therapy, and now there are mindfulness-based approaches, which I think are really exciting.
There’s been good research from Sarah Bowen in Seattle [on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention] showing that mindfulness practices can have a significant impact on people, even on people who are deeply addicted to opiates.
S: This is a completely false statement: medications for treatment of addictions exist ! Once again, comprehensive systematic reviews of methadone and buprenorphine, two medications used for treatment of opioid cravings, have indisputably shown that these medications are effective at keeping addicts off of heroin compared to no medication [5, 6]. Furthermore, a number of other drugs are currently being explored for treatments to alcohol and cocaine addiction [15, 16]. Some people may consider methadone or buprenorphine replacing “one drug with another” but this is naïve view of how powerfully addictive opioid drugs can be and how use of these FDA-approved medications in combination with individual psychological counseling, can lead to gradual dose reduction and amelioration of cravings. Medication-assisted addiction treatment is designed to help addicts fight their craving so that they can live a normal life. With time, dose can be reduced and cravings can become less intense.
The study Dr. Lewis cites regarding mindfulness is well designed and intriguing. However, the study did not compare mindfulness-based approaches to medication-based approaches and is therefore incomplete . Nevertheless, it is an interesting approach that may be able to be combined with medication-based treatment but definitely requires more research before its efficacy can be confirmed.
- Koob GF, Le Moal M. Addiction and the brain antireward system. Annual review of psychology. 2008;59:29-53.
- Kreek MJ, et al. Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of clinical investigation. 2012;122(10):3387-93.
- Kelley AE. Memory and addiction: shared neural circuitry and molecular mechanisms. Neuron. 2004;44(1):161-79.
- Tronson NC, Taylor JR. Addiction: a drug-induced disorder of memory reconsolidation. Current opinion in neurobiology. 2013;23(4):573-80.
- Mattick RP, et al. Methadone maintenance therapy versus no opioid replacement therapy for opioid dependence. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2009(3):CD002209.
- Mattick RP, et al. Buprenorphine maintenance versus placebo or methadone maintenance for opioid dependence. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2014;2:CD002207.
- Anderson P, et al. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of policies and programmes to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Lancet. 2009;373(9682):2234-46.
- Hartung DM, et al. Extended-release naltrexone for alcohol and opioid dependence: a meta-analysis of healthcare utilization studies. Journal of substance abuse treatment. 2014;47(2):113-21.
- Badiani A, et al. Opiate versus psychostimulant addiction: the differences do matter. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2011;12(11):685-700.
- Fields HL, Margolis EB. Understanding opioid reward. Trends in neurosciences. 2015;38(4):217-25.
- Zhang Y, et al. Effect of acute binge cocaine on levels of extracellular dopamine in the caudate putamen and nucleus accumbens in male C57BL/6J and 129/J mice. Brain research. 2001;923(1-2):172-7.
- Russo SJ, Nestler EJ. The brain reward circuitry in mood disorders. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2013;14(9):609-25.
- Kreek MJ, et al. Genetic influences on impulsivity, risk taking, stress responsivity and vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction. Nature neuroscience. 2005;8(11):1450-7.
- Kreek MJ, et al. Pharmacotherapy of addictions. Nature reviews Drug discovery. 2002;1(9):710-26.
- Addolorato G, et al. Novel therapeutic strategies for alcohol and drug addiction: focus on GABA, ion channels and transcranial magnetic stimulation. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012;37(1):163-77.
- Bidlack JM. Mixed kappa/mu partial opioid agonists as potential treatments for cocaine dependence. Advances in pharmacology. 2014;69:387-418.
- Bowen S, et al. Relative efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention, standard relapse prevention, and treatment as usual for substance use disorders: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA psychiatry. 2014;71(5):547-56.