The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction

National Institute on Drug Abuse:
The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction

What is drug addiction?
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.

Can addiction be treated successfully?
Yes. Addiction is a treatable, chronic disease that can be managed successfully. Research shows that combining behavioral therapy with medications, where available, is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches must be tailored to address each patient’s drug abuse patterns and drug-related medical, psychiatric, and social problems.

Does relapse to drug abuse mean treatment has failed?
No. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse and addiction is not only possible but also likely. Relapse rates are similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors. For the addicted individual, lapses back to drug abuse indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted or that alternate treatment is needed.

Comparison of Relapse Rates between Drug Addiction and Other Chronic Illnesses
Relapse rates for drug-addicted patients are compared with those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses (as is adherence to medication). Thus, drug addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness, with relapse serving as a trigger for renewed intervention.








National Institute on Drug Abuse (updated December 2012). The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction
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