Study: Drug Addicts May Have Abnormal Brains Prone To Addiction

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have published a startling article in Science Magazine stating that drug addicts may have brain abnormalities that give them a predisposition toward addiction. It could radically change how we view addiction and its causes.

The parts of the brain that appear to differ deal with impulse control. The scientists compared abnormal brains of subjects with their siblings with normal brains and found a pronounced difference in the rate of addiction. Some 50 biological sibling pairs were tested as well as 50 healthy, unrelated pairs of people. The question is how such research would affect our laws and sentencing. This would suggest a physical predisposition. We already have laws that allow mitigation due to drug or alcohol addition, but this research could move addiction even closer to disability categories. The research however does not suggest a total predisposition or the inability to resist taking drugs in the first place.

The new article brings to mind the recent research showing teen brains develop later than previously thought (particularly in the area of risk appreciation and judgment). That would make this something of a perfect storm for some teens who (with most teens) lack brain development on risk judgment plus a predisposition for addiction.

While not to take away from the medical and legal interest in this story, I must admit that the story also inevitably brings this scene to mind:

Source: BBC

29 thoughts on “Study: Drug Addicts May Have Abnormal Brains Prone To Addiction

  1. It is my understanding that this is true….I am not an advocate for each and everyone to be able to “Claim a Disability”…. but it seems that we have some folks that are incapable of functioning even without the substance….and some folks that are what can be called “Functioning” Addicts….regardless of the addiction… Unless the mind can be changed and the individual has the desire and recognizes that they can change..regardless of treatment, medication or program…You’ll have no change….

    I can say that I know functioning addicts…and a lot of them work in government…all levels…and about every addiction that goes with and along with it….

    Great topic Prof….

  2. martin,

    anytime you want…..That from my understanding is one of the hardest substances to overcome….but go a head…

  3. This is old news for those of us who keep up with the professional literature. My theory is the best single way to deal with addiction is to find a way to change brain chemistry and structure (stem cell research anyone?) to neutralize the impulse centers.

    I have noticed over the years that people with diagnosable ADHD as well as certain kinds of traumatic brain injury are far more prone to use recreational chemicals than other population cohorts. That is, the population groups that may have defective impulse control centers. Others drink or use drugs as a form of self medication. Booze is cheaper than Seroquel, and does not need a doctor visit and prescription to get it.

    As with lawmakers not understanding the Internet, neither do they understand the science of brain function. To their credit, some judges actuaally try to understand the science and try to sentence accordingly, but most do not. I worked on a case a few years ago where a young man with an IQ of 60 was sentenced to 222 months in Federal prison for transporting drugs. The kid was a mule, illiterate and could not even count change. As I told the Court, he was naive, low functioning and definitely not the businessman type that would be a drug dealer. He could not even make change. The US Attorney made him out to be a cross between Pablo Escobar and Al Capone–the judge gave him 222 months. Do the math; that is 18.5 years. For picking up a bag of drugs from the supplier and taking them to his cousin, the dealer. He did not even get paid for that pickup.

  4. This is TalkinDogs owner, or Pal. He left a note on the computer and ran off with his pack of dogs. He thinks I have decided to vote Republican because he heard me on the phone saying Willard was ok but I was talking about a guy at the marina not the mormon running for the GOP gopher nomination. This blog is the only way I can get in touch with him.

    If ya check in to this blog dog, I had no such intention of voting Republican and your place in the home is still yours and only yours.


  5. OS,

    I have a friend that got caught up in the mandatory life sentence for possession of 650 grams or more of a controlled substance…he had a few kilos of coke…this was recreational use only…eventually he got out but not before he spent 22 years….he was a well heeled trust fund baby….He never dealt….what he would spend in a month most people don’t make in a year…Not that I condone disparity in sentencing….but in your case and this case…the facts do not add up to the target of the Drugs laws…..

    As you stated this science is old news…If people in positions of power and ability to make a difference actually made a difference…we would not need so many Prisons…But they play up to party ideology…which is unfortunate…..

    Just like Drunk Driving is a bad idea….MADD did make a difference…but at what cost?


    Surely you jest…..the Jester of the Prosecution would never allow it….

  6. OS, You are right that this old news. Right now the only thing that works is long term abstinence a la the Hazleden model.

  7. But is it clear what is the chicken and what the egg in this case? Maybe the impulsive behavior is a result of the impotence to defeat the addiction.

  8. This is not new information.

    I spent 29 years as a drug counselor, a large percentage of clientele being involved with the criminal justice system.

    Addicts are a throwaway demographic, the all purpose scapegoat, absent any serious, research based advocacy of note, or influence.

    I.e., it doesn’t matter. In our “center right” nation, addicts are going to be among the last to catch a break and that is pretty much across the board.

    Makes for good research, but find another cause if you want a reasonable chance of reward in the form of more enlightened policy, from diagnosis to sentencing.

  9. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have published a startling article in Science Magazine stating that drug addicts may have brain abnormalities that give them a…

    I am leery when I hear about all the “abnormal” brains researchers find.

    I am now reminded of Alan Sroufe’s NY Times op-ed about Ritalin:

    Back in the 1960s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs. It turns out, however, that there is little to no evidence to support this theory.

    Whatever happened to the gay gene? No, not that one, I was referring to Simon LeVay’s work.

  10. Well Don S.,

    You might know first hand…OS as has stated and been verified by another on this Blawg has specialized training…

    Many people go to a treatment center and know what they are supposed to do..yet the mind doesn’t change and they stay in the addictive behavior….Some centers have recovery reminder weekends for those that wish to maintain or be addiction free….

  11. Anonymously Yours1, February 3, 2012 at 7:28 am
    …I can say that I know functioning addicts…and a lot of them work in government…all levels…and about every addiction that goes with and along with it….
    ‘I will NOT be angry…!’

    hahaha! (fv old movie….)

    the thing is, well, is it a chicken or an egg kind of thing? and not discounting a lot of other things, there are addictions that are to internal substances that are mediated by external events, imposed and otherwise, and societal norms and stuff….so wouldn’t that mean that a person with a perfectly normal brain living in a war zone or an unhealthy society would eventually ‘model’ an abnormal brain? (or a ‘more normal’ brain if they lived amongst booze guzzling brutes and that sort….). Not to even mention the necessary survival adaptations that must take place when living amongst those whose words and actions are designed to deceive…or control…or those who are addicted to power….and well, where did they get a ‘normal’ brain anyway? I’d like to examine the control on this experiment!

  12. Swarthmore mom1, February 3, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Woosty, PTSD, for instance, changes the brain but is one born with a brain that is more susceptible to PTSD?
    I tend to favour the idea that there is no single noodle in the soup that turns the flavour…..I think it is probably a combination of things/events/options/inputs and responses….but that is just a personal musing….and I am addicted to tasty things….it’s a struggle but at least I can indulge in public :)

  13. …and so yes, I think so, but no, not innately. But social stratification and the environments and cultural norms at those strata may impact different brains, differently. And that said, this also begins before birth IMHO, as the mothers body chemistry absolutely does effect changes on the embryo….so I guess I’m in both nature and nurture camps…as usual. The positive side being that an appropriate affect can disable and reform a damaging effect.

  14. AY
    Two examples:
    functioning —– Anita O’Day, who was high as a loon on heroin of many stage appearances, for many many years, she declared this and it confirmed.
    drugs do make a difference——a friend’s son is on Ritalin, and in special class. A temporary abstention of medicine produced immediate results beyond the boy’s control. Likewise when it was started again.

    But perhaps I misunderstood you.

  15. I-707

    I think that we have some folks that actually need medication to function everyday….We also have a lot more folks that take drugs and/or drink for recreational uses….Neither are bad unless you cease to be able to function without them…..Maybe I missed your point….Whatchasaying…..

  16. I have a good friend, an M.D. who works to help addicts deal with life and their addictions who gave me the one question he initially asks all those who come to him for help:

    “On a scale of 1-10 can you rate your first high?”

    Those who answer 8 or less are going to be easy cases, those who answer 11 and above are going to be life-long patients.

  17. Maybe this study, if holds, will help those of us who live in chronic intractable pain stop being the media’s and DEA’s current whipping boy, because many of us rely on narcotic medications to be able to get out of bed, or tie our shoes, or just live. Very few folk on opiods for CIP become addicted (although may become physically dependent, totally different animal.) Maybe because our brains are not wired for addiction (although probably wired for continuing CIP because of changes in brain connections and chemistry), pain docs and patients can start being treated agaiin like patients rather then potential abusers and felons. (Some pain docs require pts to sign contract that includes random uring testing – more befitting a jail then a docs office.

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