Sunday, February 12, 2012
The Future of Addiction Treatment
Is there some way out of here?
Addictions are chronic diseases. They may require a lifetime of treatment. After a number of severe episodes of alcohol or drug abuse, the brain may be organically primed for more of the same. Long-term treatment is sometimes, if not always, the most effective way out of this dilemma. (The same is true of unipolar depression.)
We will need to learn a lot more about chemicals—the ones we ingest, and the ones that are produced and stored naturally in our bodies—if we plan to make any serious moves toward more effective treatment. What we have learned about the nature of pleasure and reward is a strong start. The guiding insight behind most of the work is that addiction to different drugs involves reward and pleasure mechanisms common to them all. The effects of the drug—whether it makes you sleepy, stimulated, happy, talkative, or delusional—constitute a secondary phenomenon. A good deal of earlier research was directed at teasing out the customized peculiarities of one drug of abuse compared to another. Now most addiction scientists agree that receptor alterations in response to the artificial stimulation produced by the drugs are the biochemical key, and that recovery occurs when the brain’s remarkable “plastic” abilities go to work at the molecular level, re-regulating and adjusting to the new, drug-free or drug-reduced status quo. An addict beats addiction by ceasing the constant and artificial manipulation of neuronal receptors, to be entirely unromantic for a moment about the nature of recovery.
But in order for that to happen most effectively, you have to stop taking the drugs.
Comparing our reservoir of pleasure chemicals to money in the bank, Dr. George Koob, Chairman of the Committee On The Neurobiology Of Addictive Disorders at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, draws the following analogy:
We can expend that money over the course of a single weekend’s binge on cocaine or we can expend it over a two-week period in the normal pleasures of everyday life. If you spend these pleasure neurochemicals in one lump sum such as a crack binge, you use up your supply of pleasure for a certain period, and so you pay for it later.
Addicts vividly demonstrate a compulsive need to use alcohol and other drugs despite the worst kinds of consequences—arrest, illness, injury, overdose. What kind of euphoria could be worth such psychic pain? Even stranger, why continue when the drug no longers works as well as it once did due to tolerance? What makes these people eat their words, shred their best intentions, break their promises, and starting using or drinking again and again?
There really is no cheating in this game. The system has to self-regulate. Craving and drug-seeking behavior, once set in motion, disrupt an individual’s normal “motivational hierarchy.” How does this motivational express train come about? It happens at the point where casual experimentation is replaced by the pharmacological dictates of active addiction. It happens when the impulse to try it with your friends transforms itself into the drug-hungry monkey on your back.
Formal medical treatment and intervention can work, but the results are inconsistent and often little better than no formal treatment at all. Most alcoholics and smokers and other drug addicts, it is frequently asserted, become abstinent on their own, going through detoxification, withdrawal, and subsequent cravings without benefit of any formal programs. Our health policy should not only encourage addicts to heal themselves, but must also help equip them with the medical tools they need in treatment. After all, behavioral habits as relatively harmless as nail biting can be all but impossible to break.
As detailed by Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek, a professor and senior attending physician at the Laboratory of the Biology of Addictive Diseases at Rockefeller University:
Toxicity, destruction of previously formed synapses, formation of new synapses, enhancement or reduction of cognition and the development of specific memories of the drug of abuse, which are coupled with the conditioned cues for enhancing relapse to drug use, all have a role in addiction. And each of these provides numerous potential targets for pharmacotherapies for the future.
In other words, when an addiction has been active for a sustained period, the first-line treatment of the future is likely to come in the form of a pill. New addiction treatments will come—and in many cases already do come—in the form of drugs to treat drug addiction. Every day, addicts are quitting drugs and alcohol by availing themselves of pharmaceutical treatments that did not exist twenty years ago. Sometimes medications work, and we all need to reacquaint ourselves with that notion. As more of the biological substrate is teased out, the search for effective medications narrows along more fruitful avenues. This is the most promising, and, without doubt, the most controversial development in the history of addiction treatment.
Fighting fire with fire is not without risk, of course. None of this is meant to deny the usefulness of talk therapy as an adjunct to treatment. However, consider the risks involved in not finding more effective medical treatments. Better addiction treatment is, by almost any measure, a cost-effective proposition.