The NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) estimates that around 10% of adults will develop an addiction to a drug at some point in their lives. At the same time, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that about half of U.S. adults use illicit drugs at some point in their lives. These two statistics would suggest that about one in five people who experiment with drugs will develop an addiction as a result.
But the likelihood of developing a drug addiction depends on several factors, including the chemical structure of the drugs, genes, mental health, and environment. Some people might get addicted to a drug from the first time they try it, while others never develop any kind of addiction.
Some Drugs Are More Addictive Than Others
Just as there are significant differences between the individuals that take drugs that influence the risk of becoming addicted, there are also differences between types of drugs.
For example, some people have experimented with powdered cocaine and never developed an addiction, while someone can get addicted to drugs like heroin or crack cocaine the first time they try it. It depends on how quickly the drug produces its effects, how intense those effects are, how much time it takes to build tolerance to the drug, and how intense the withdrawal symptoms are.
Cocaine floods the brain with dopamine within a few seconds, producing a feeling of euphoria, alertness, and excitement. The effects are short-lived, so it can lead to a “binge” pattern where a person takes doses back to back in an attempt to maintain that “high.” This is usually followed by a “crash,” which involves fatigue (both mental and physical), depression, and intense cravings.
Heroin, on the other hand, has much more severe withdrawal symptoms, which include flu-like symptoms, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. If you or someone you know have tried to stop using a particular drug but weren’t able to because of intense withdrawal symptoms, you can get professional help through a credentialed treatment facility. Just search for “drug rehab” depending on your location. For example – Los Angeles drug rehab. You can call, and a dedicated treatment provider will discuss your options with you and how to gain access to resources for your recovery.
Tolerance – Changing the Brain’s Reward System
Tolerance is considered one of the key symptoms of addiction. Some drugs with more subtle effects, such as nicotine, can be just as addictive as stronger drugs, but the addiction tends to forms slowly and insidiously.
Addiction is considered a brain disease because of this tolerance. The drug produces changes in the brain that affect the reward system, as well as judgment, learning, memory, decision-making, and impulse control. The two most important areas involved in addiction are the VTA (ventral tegmental area) and the nucleus accumbens. The VTA consists of a group of dopaminergic neurons that project to other areas of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is involved in motivation and learning. Psychoactive drugs affect activity in the VTA, resulting in an increase of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.
This system evolved to direct our behavior to stimuli such as water, food, and mating – things that are essential to our survival as individuals and as a species. Drugs activate the same system but much more strongly. Once tolerance sets in, it means that the drug has altered the chemical activity and perhaps even the structure of these brain regions. At this point, the person doesn’t experience the same pleasure from the drug as they did before, but because of these changes, they need to keep using the drug to maintain homeostasis, or they start experiencing withdrawal symptoms.