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Is Addiction a Disease? Yes and No

Yes, it's a disease

Yes, it’s a disease

No, it's a habit

No, it’s a habit


Addiction is a puzzling phenomenon. Why do addicts persist in self-destructive behavior even after it has lost them their jobs, their family, their health, and their self-respect? Do they have any control over their behavior? If so, why don’t they control it? If not, why not? Two recent books shed light on these questions: The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease, by Marc Lewis, and The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig.

Lewis is a neuroscientist and former addict; Heilig is a physician and addiction researcher. Lewis is convinced that addiction is not a disease, but a habit created by the neural circuitry of desire in the course of its normal functioning. Heilig is convinced that addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes that can’t be cured but that must be managed by lifelong treatment.

While they disagree about whether addiction is a disease, they actually agree about almost everything else. They agree that we should reject the stigma of addiction as a kind of moral failing. They reject the hypotheses that addiction is a matter of choice or self-medication. They think current diagnostic labels are inadequate. They both try to integrate two levels of information: the case histories of addicts and the scientific knowledge from research. They are both skeptical of AA and of conventional rehab programs. They both support evidence-based treatments. They both think addicts are not all alike and that individual addicts will respond better to individualized approaches. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Thoughts on Neuroplasticity

I recently read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He describes case histories and research indicating that the brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We used to think each function was localized to a small area of the brain and if you lost that area of brain tissue the function was gone forever. We once thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now we know better. 

Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain, even into old age. If you exercise one finger, the area of the brain devoted to that finger enlarges. The old concept of dedicated brain areas for specific functions no longer holds. Areas of the cortex that normally process vision can learn to process totally different inputs such as hearing. This is what happens with blind people: their hearing skills are enhanced when new neural connections for hearing invade the disused visual cortex. They may not actually have better hearing acuity, but they have learned to pay more attention to auditory input and to use it to build up a representation of the world around them.

One of the more intriguing experiments he describes was in monkeys. When sensory input nerves to one arm were severed, the monkey stopped using the arm, even though the motor nerves were intact. When the good arm was put in a sling, the monkey started using the impaired arm again.  When both arms were deprived of sensory input, the monkey used both arms.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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