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Biological Causes of Addiction

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Biological models of addiction emphasize the importance of genetics and the biological forces of nature. These theories suggest that brain chemistry, brain structure, and genetic abnormalities cause human behavior.

Many of these models have not been tested or applied to every specific type of addiction. Nevertheless, scientists and practitioners assume it is reasonable to apply these models to other addictions. As research in this area continues, we may learn that some models are more applicable to specific addictions.

Biological Model of Addiction and Recovery Implications:

According to the biological model, each person's unique physiology and genetics causes addiction. People differ in the degree to which they like or dislike a particular addictive substance or activity. Some people may enjoy a substance or activity so much that it becomes very tempting and difficult to resist. Another person would not experience this difficulty because they do not experience a similar enjoyment. Likewise, the ability to temper impulsive desires with rational thought is a brain function that varies among different people. Some people may have a deficiency in their capacity to resist certain types of impulses. Thus, these folks would be at greater risk for developing an addiction because of their genetic vulnerability.

DNA moleculeRecovery consists of recognizing and understanding one's genetic vulnerability. Once this vulnerability is identified it becomes necessary to abstain (or at least moderate) from addictive substances and activities. Treatment provides education that helps people to understand and accept their genetic predisposition. There is a heightened emphasis on the importance of abstinence.

Questions for personal reflection from biological theory: Would it be valuable to understand my family and genetic history? Would it be wise to consider my history of (failed) attempts at moderation? This information would help me appreciate that I might react differently than other people to addictive substances or activities. Wouldn't this knowledge help me to understand why these addictive substances (or activities) are so enjoyable? This explains why my cravings are so difficult to resist. Armed with this information, would it be easier for me to avoid these substances (or activities)? Even though I really like these things, my genetic make-up means I am vulnerable to developing an addiction to them. Could I use this new understanding to strengthen my motivation to abstain altogether? Or, could I commit to moderation at a very low level of consumption?


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