Many people think that drug addiction is due to lack of willpower or is a sign of moral weakness. However, in the last 10 years scientific research has convinced experts that addiction is definitely a disease of the brain.
There are major differences between simple drug use or abuse and drug addiction. People who use cocaine or other drugs too much can still exert control over their behavior. Once they are addicted, their brains change in such a way that they cannot live without drugs; they can no longer say, "No." Control is lost because the brain has changed in complex ways.
Addictive drugs such as cocaine, alcohol and nicotine can affect the structure and function of the brain. Drugs can change the circuits in the brain that control motivation and emotions, impairing a drug-addicted person's power of choice. With repeated heavy use, the shape and structure of brain cells and the connections between them change radically. The brains of addicts are very different than those of non-addicts.
This does not happen overnight. People begin using cocaine, alcohol or nicotine because these substances make them feel good. These drugs cause an increase in certain neurotransmitters (chemicals that communicate information between brain cells) that, in turn, produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria. With continued use over time, addictive drugs cause long-lasting changes in the brain's pleasure and reward system. Chronic use of a drug to stimulate these neurotransmitters reduces the brain's natural ability to produce pleasure without the drug. When that person stops using drugs, he or she no longer can experience pleasure and may feel depressed and anxious. Eventually drugs and alcohol are needed just to feel "normal."
Not everyone who uses cocaine, drinks or smokes becomes addicted. Vulnerability to addiction is affected by quite a few factors. Genetic predisposition appears to be a major factor, particularly with alcohol dependence. Children of alcoholics are 2 to 4 times more likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts. More than 60% of alcoholics have family histories of alcoholism. Genetics are thought to play a heavy role in early-onset alcoholism.