Former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Alan Leshner has been vilified by many for referring to addiction as a chronic, relapsing “brain disease.” What often goes unmentioned is Leshner’s far more interesting characterization of addiction as the “quintessential biobehavioral disorder.”
Multifactorial illnesses present special challenges to our way of thinking about disease. Addiction and other biopsychosocial disorders often show symptoms at odds with disease, as people generally understand it. For patients and medical professionals alike, questions about the disease aspect of addiction tie into larger fears about the medicalization of human behavior.
These confusions are mostly understandable. Everybody knows what cancer is—a disease of the cells. Schizophrenia? Some kind of brain illness. But addiction? Addiction strikes many people as too much a part of the world, impacted too strongly by environment, culture, behavior, psychology, to qualify. But many diseases have these additional components. In the end, the meaning of addiction matters less than the physiological facts of addiction.
One of the attractions of medical models of addiction is that there is such an extensive set of data supporting that alignment. Specifically, as set down in a famous paper by National Institute of Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow and co-author Joanna Fowler: “Understanding the changes in the brain which occur in the transition from normal to addictive behavior has major implications in public health…. We postulate that intermittent dopaminergic activation of reward circuits secondary to drug self-administration leads to dysfunction of the orbitofrontal cortex via the striato-thalamo-orbitofrontal circuit.” This cascade of events is often referred to as the “hijacking” of the brain by addictive drugs, but nothing is really being hijacked. Rather, the abusive use of drugs changes the brain, and that should come as no surprise, since almost everything we do in the world has the potential of changing the brain in some way. “Why are we so surprised that when you take a poison a thousand times, it makes some changes in your head?” said the former director of a chemical dependency treatment program at the University of Minnesota. “It makes sense that [addictive drugs] change things.”
Critics like Fernando Vidal object to a perceived shift from “having a brain” to “being a brain.” He is saying that he cannot see the point of “privileging” the brain as a locus for the study of human behavior. In “Addiction and the Brain-Disease Fallacy,” which appeared in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Sally Satel and Scott Lillienfeld write that “the brain disease model obscure the dimension of choice in addiction, the capacity to respond to incentives, and also the essential fact people use drugs for reasons (as consistent with a self-medication hypothesis).”
An excellent example of the excesses of the anti-brain discussions is an article by Rachel Hammer of Mayo Clinic and colleagues, in the American Journal of Bioethics-Neuroscience. “Many believed that a disease diagnosis diminishes moral judgment while reinforcing the imperative that the sick persons take responsibility for their condition and seek treatment.” But only a few paragraphs later, the authors admit: “Scholars have theorized that addiction-as-disease finds favor among recovering addicts because it provides a narrative that allows the person simultaneously to own and yet disown deviant acts while addicted.” Furthermore: “Addiction reframed as a pathology of the weak-brained (or weak-gened) bears just as must potential for wielding stigma and creating marginalized populations." But again, the risk of this potentially damaging new form of stigma “was not a view held by the majority of our addicted participants…”
And so on. The anti-disease model authors seem not to care that addicted individuals are often immensely helped by, and hugely grateful for, disease conceptions of their disorder, even though Hammer is willing to admit that the disease conception has “benefits for addicts’ internal climates.” In fact, it often helps addicts establish a healthier internal mental climate, in which they can more reasonably contemplate treatment. Historian David Courtwright, writing in BioSocieties, says that the most obvious reason for this conundrum is that “the brain disease model has so far failed to yield much practical therapeutic value.” The disease paradigm has not greatly increased the amount of “actionable etiology” available to medical and public health practitioners. “Clinicians have acquired some drugs, such as Wellbutrin and Chantix for smokers, Campral for alcoholics or buprenorphine for heroin addicts, but no magic bullets.” Physicians and health workers are “stuck in therapeutic limbo,” Courtwright believes.
“If the brain disease model ever yields a pharmacotherapy that curbs craving, or a vaccine that blocks drug euphoria, as some researchers hope,” Courtwright says, “we should expect the rapid medicalization of the field. Under those dramatically cost-effective circumstances, politicians and police would be more willing to surrender authority to physicians.” The drug-abuse field is characterized by, “at best, incomplete and contested medicalization.” That certainly seems to be true. If we are still contesting whether the brain has anything essential to do with addiction, then yes, almost everything about the field remains “incomplete and contested.”
Sociologists Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, in their book Neuro, take the field of sociology to task for its “often unarticulated conception of human beings as sense making creatures, shaped by webs of signification that are culturally and historically variable and embedded in social institutions that owe nothing substantial to biology.”
And for those worried about problems with addicts in the legal system, specifically, over issues of free will, genetic determinism, criminal culpability, and the “diseasing” of everything, Rose and Abi-Rached bring good news: “Probabilistic arguments, to the effect that persons of type A, or with condition B, are in general more likely to commit act X, or fail to commit act Y, hold little or no sway in the process of determining guilt.” And this seems unlikely to change in the likely future, despite the growing numbers of books and magazine articles saying that it will.
Opponents of the disease model of addiction and other mental disorders are shocked, absolutely shocked, at the proliferation of “neuro” this and “neuro” that, particularly in the fields of advertising and self-improvement, where neurotrainers and neuroenhancing potions are the talk of the moment. Sociologists claim to see some new and sinister configuration of personhood, where a journalist might just see a pile of cheesy advertising and a bunch of fast-talking science hucksters maneuvering for another shot at the main chance. When has selling snake oil ever been out of fashion?
For harm reductionists, addiction is sometimes viewed as a learning disorder. This semantic construction seems to hold out the possibility of learning to drink or use drugs moderately after using them addictively. The fact that some non-alcoholics drink too much and ought to cut back, just as some recreational drug users need to ease up, is certainly a public health issue—but one that is distinct in almost every way from the issue of biochemical addiction. By concentrating on the fuzziest part of the spectrum, where problem drinking merges into alcoholism, we’ve introduced fuzzy thinking with regard to at least some of the existing addiction research base. And that doesn’t help anybody find common ground.
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