Study supports biological tendency toward drug addiction
August 2, 1996
Web posted at: 12:55 a.m. EDT
From Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Mice may hold the answer to a question medical experts have asked for decades: Are drug addicts weak-willed people who lack self-control or is there a physical reason behind their problems?
A new study of mice, published in the journal Science, adds more evidence pointing to a biological cause.
"Despite what a lot of the public might think, it's been clear for some time that these are disorders in which there are fundamental changes that occur in the brain, making us think that these are, in essence, brain diseases," said Dr. Steven Hyman of the National Institutes of Health.
In the study, conducted in France and Germany, researchers removed a gene in mice that is known to influence dependence on drugs and alcohol. They gave the mice high doses of morphine, then took the morphine away. Taking mice off powerful drugs should cause them to suffer painful withdrawal symptoms just as humans do, but the mice did not.
So what does this research mean for humans? Could a doctor simply go in and remove somebody's gene? The answer is no. That particular gene plays a number of roles in the body. Without it, you wouldn't be able to learn anything or remember anything.
However, manipulating the gene isn't the only option.
"As we understand in ever more detail the physiology of these processes, smart people will be able to come up with medications, with pills, that will affect these processes and thereby treat addiction," predicted Dr. Rodney Burbach of Suburban Hospital.
Burbach stressed that even if pharmaceutical companies are able to come up with a drug to treat addiction, it won't take care of the whole problem. Counseling will always be part of the treatment.
Often, drug addicts and recovering alcoholics such as John Roach wait for years to get help. During those years, their lives begin to fall apart.
Some encounter legal and financial problems, Roach said, "none of which I have had or anything like that. But it does make your marriage much more difficult, makes your relationship with your friends a lot more difficult, so your whole psycho-social world is kind of messed up."
Roach is now in a treatment program where he hopes to defeat a problem that might have started in a gene.
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