Friday, 3 February 2012

Addicts brains are wired up differently

A recent study has shown that "Brains may be wired for addiction".  This study has shown that siblings have similar abnormalities (compared to the general population) in brain structure but one has become an addict whilst the other hasn't.  The abnormalities are in the areas of self-control and emotional response it is believed.

My first thought on hearing this was "no shit Sherlock" - anyone who has been around addiction and in particular 12-step recovery groups will normally find an overwhelming belief within the majority addicts that they were "wired up differently" and with retrospective hind-sight consider themselves to have been "an addict waiting to happen" long before they discovered their drug of choice.  As I say this isn't everybody's  view but a prevalent one.  I know little of the addiction issues in previous generations in my family - largely as many were dead long before I was either alive or able to ask them.  However one other close relative of mine is in recovery now in their 20s and in a smallish family you have to say there is there anecdotal evidence that it is an inherited trait right there.  Funny that the scientists are catching up with a view held by AA for approaching 80years or so now.

The bit I found most interesting was a comment from one of the authors on the BBC report that said "...offer the possibility of new ways of treating high-risk individuals to develop better 'self control'" ... Really?  The simple fact is that in over 7 years of recovery now I've not found a single alcoholic that can develop better self-control - we normally have spent several years in that battle, I had.  There was no control possible I had to stop - but then the difficulty with the stopping was huge as alcohol ruled my life by then.  Also all those I've met have reached some point of "rock bottom" - that doesn't have to be homeless, on the street, daily drinking but some form of emotional, spiritual, emotional or health rock bottom that has made them just give up the fight.  All forms of rationalisation should, you would have thought, brought them to the understanding that they couldn't and shouldn't drink like they did a long time before that point.

The idea of a "magic pill" to make addicts stop craving and feel better is a notion all in the throws of addiction and recovery have desired either desperately or as merely as a laughable thought.  However replacing one substance that is altering how your mind functions with another one may only create legions of "addiction drug therapy" users.  And one thing with an addict if they find something that makes them feel better trust me they will abuse it - that is what is in their nature or by then nurture maybe.  There are times we all need to take things for headaches, depression, etc. but I for one am always highly critical and vigilant about how much I'm taking and why I'm taking it needing to question my motives all the time I know more than one alcoholic who had a slip that started with a quick gulp of cough syrup to ease that tickly cough.

I applaud the work and it is good it has received a lot of publicity with the article getting published.  It won't of course stop those that always say that drunks should just stop drinking and see it as a moral issue rather than a disease but hopefully this will have just nudged some of the doubters to more open views on addiction and those that suffer in it's grip.  If just one person hearing that today decided to get help for their own problem then that is an even greater benefit.


  1. My father was a lifetime alcoholic who was positively proud of it - and yes, he hit rock bottom many times, including becoming homeless (never for long, I always bailed him out). Both my grandparents on either side were also heavy drinkers, and the Scottish, working class culture my parents were raised in tended to endorse the lifestyle as not only acceptable, but almost compulsary. I am very aware I also have an addicive nature, as do my siblings (but thankfully only my brother has succumbed to alcoholism).

    Yes, the danger is, it is too easy for my personality type to simply fall into the trap of swapping one addiction over for another, for example I quit smoking cigarettes, but am now hopelessly dependant on electronic ciggies now. I took up smoking when I gave up over eating to combat my (then) obesity.. and so on, and so on.


  2. My two best friends had addictive personalities - fatal when combined with hard drugs and peer pressure. One died in 96 (overdose). The other has had strokes, beatings and can hardly walk and struggles to speak now. There is no off button - and once you're in a well of fug and misery, it's near impossible to climb out of your own self discipline.

  3. I thought it was rather sad that the little sideline on the BBC report describing the two sisters referred to one as having "the strength of character to stay clean." They didn't, however, mention that the other sister had the strength of character to get help. But many would know which was harder to do.

  4. There used to be a psychological jargon term, "statementing". The idea was, making statements about oneself (eg, "I'm a lousy juggler") is unconsciously limiting. I wonder if telling us that are brains are wired to be writers, jugglers, pianists, etc., can be damaging as well as liberating.

    I suppose I'm saying that this research might on one hand make make people who are alchoholics feel less empowered to fight their ptoblems while, paradoxically, making those who are not more understanding of the condition. As you say, it might nudge "some of the doubters to more open views on addiction and those that suffer in it's grip."

  5. I thought this one would create debate... ;-)

    @shrinky - so sad to hear - I know a little of what I put my family through, you can never fully make amends but daily I try and stay sober these days it is the best I can do. For the family it must be so hard.

    @mondo - ditto what I just said. So sad to hear - those that are left still have the pain.

    @Dominic - to be honest all alcoholics and addicts have many many more reasons/justifications/lies/beliefs etc. that keep them in addiction I doubt this will adversely affect that number - but I do take you point "I'm born this way there I will carry on" could be a banner martyrs to the cause will hoist over themselves.

    @Pixie - I heard that at the time "strength of character"... you know carrying on killing yourself despite all the evidence of the issue around you shows arguably more "strength of character" and as you rightly say the day you ask for help you are doomed as you cannot carry on as you were, the lies are exposed and you are in that awful place "Can't live with it, can't live without it". I know who out of those two ladies I have more admiration for - especially for her to appear on that report as well that is supremely gutsy.

  6. my mother was an alcoholic but in her case it was an attempt to self medicated her chronic anxiety condition rather than something re wired..... but who knows for sure....

    your entry makes for interesting reading

  7. My father was one of two alcoholic brothers born to an alcoholic mother (the third brother was not alcoholic, but died young of cancer.). I have no idea about the generations that preceded my grandmother, but would love to know more. Of my own siblings (there are five of us), one is alcoholic (interestingly, the one who both physically and psychologically most resembles our father.). The rest of us are middle-class drinkers, ie, we all drink a bit more than we probably should but find ways of justifying it.

    Neurology is still a relatively young science, but over the last twenty years or so it has developed incredibly fast and is throwing up all sorts of new ideas about the organic nature of disorders. I'm constantly fascinated to read the new theories. Of course the worry is that the Pharma companies, who will end up developing products to 'cure' or control symptoms and behaviours, stand to benefit most of all from the move towards a market-based model of healthcare that is currently (and seemingly unstoppably) underway.

  8. Your post and the comments here are quite interesting. It seems fairly obvious to me that certain people's brains are wired for addiction (I know mine is not). I guess, if that's the case... what now? How do we take people who are predisposed and stop it before it starts?

  9. @ExtraO - what can be done? This is like the point we'll get to with genes, they'll do a test and say "You have blah blah chance of heart disease/cancer/diabetes etc." you are then told to be careful with this or that... you're then hit by a bus ... I mean we all take health seriously - or do we? Smoking kills. Simple been known for years and years yet still kids start. Drugs and drink are bad for you yet again more and more get hooked already.

    Especially with drink for me, although now I look back with stunning clarity and say "I drank incorrectly from age 16" with many it starts out as "normal" and only slowly takes them over. It is an insidious killer I'm afraid.

  10. @Ishouldbeworking - as with anything in the genes it is odd how the mutation does or doesn't get passed on. I've seen things where twins are studied and one has an inherited issue and the other identical twin doesn't.

    I feel bad here as in a previous life I worked in a pharma company - trust me the people on the ground do largely work there for all the right reasons however I did look at a forward vision for the industry about 10 years back... the problem is all the easy targets and the "big" diseases have been successfully hit - how many more blood pressure treatments do you need? Well the answer is generally none as we have enough that are good enough... therefore... personalised medicine where it is all targeted at you and you alone is the future.

    Sadly there is so little R&D going on in pharma now, Pfizer, AZ have both shed thousands of R&D jobs in the UK in the last year alone... The pharma industry is currently playing a dangerous game of last man standing takes all... it's like watching a fight of a bunch of drunks that won't finish until all but one is incapable of getting off the floor.

  11. I think about my relationship to drink all the time. It's like another person I have to consider, quite a dominating one but one which has wheedled itself into a central place in my life.

    Like the person above, one of the things that slightly bothers me is a learned behaviour I have acquired over decades, to stop worrying about things by having a few pints. It does have its plus points, since sometimes it dulls the worry enough for you to think clearly about a sensible strategy. But on the whole, it would be better to divorce anxiety and drinking, and instead make a happier marriage of "problem dealt with, now let's reward myself with a couple of drinks."

  12. Maybe children's brains can be re-trained to develop better self-control, but this suggestion is extremely aggravating as an adult who struggled for years with the belief that I should be able to control my drinking. Even in children, though, this sounds like a pharmacological solution, which sounds like science fiction right now. There must be some solution for those who aren't helped by AA, but we're not there yet.