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What causes addiction?

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We’ve all heard about the antics of Amy Winehouse. The singer has been branded by the media as one of those people who just has an “addictive personality“. If it’s not one thing, it seems to be another. The acclaimed artist battled her way through drug and alcohol dependency, only to then become “addicted“ to shopping, exercising and plastic surgery.

Is Amy genetically predisposed to this tendency? Michael Segell, of msnbc.com, writes that experts have found children of alcoholics to be three to four times more likely to become abusers themselves. It has been suggested that abusers are often likely to be addicted to more than just one substance at any one time – alcoholism, for example, may be present in as many as three quarters of cocaine users.

However, scientists have so far not been able to isolate a gene, onto which they can pin addiction. Though familial factors may influence how likely a person is to develop a drug dependency, general concensus is that there is a very slim chance that anyone has a “pre-addictive“ personality.

So if it’s not genes, then what is it?

It has been said that an individual’s state of mind is usually part or wholly responsible for how likely he or she is to become an addict. Different drugs cater to different reward receptors in the brain, meaning that a person who has trouble relaxing may find relief in smoking cannabis, which can work as a tranquiliser. Equally, someone who has trouble concentrating or getting motivated may find the answer to his problem in cocaine. Segell talks about addictionologists’ beliefs that ongoing abuse desensitizes these receptors, causing that individual’s reward system to be damaged. It is for that reason also that many addicts find, after prolonged usage, that they need ever-increasing doses to achieve the same effect.

Social and familial influences can also play a crucial role. Harvard psychiatrist and author Edward J. Khantzian suggested that drug addiction stems in part from a need to “self-medicate”. Children learn to regulate their mood between the ages of 1 and 3, ordinarily with the help of a caring parent. It has been observed that the majority of individuals who make it to therapy have experienced some form of distant relationship with their parents. This is thought to lead “self-medication“, through the abuse of some substance or other, in an attempt to make up for the sense of loss.

Segell also draws our attention to research conducted by Dr. George Koob of the Scripps Research Institute, who discovered that cocaine releases chemicals causing fear and stress. These negative feelings remain after the initial euphoria has worn off. Koob stated: “The only way to treat the bad feelings … Is to take the drug that makes you feel good again. But this becomes a vicious cycle.”

Some celebrities with addictions include actress Drew Barrymore, who spent much of her life fighting drug abuse, golf legend Tiger Woods, who has been newly diagnosed with an addiction to sex and actor Johnny Depp, who has battled alcoholism in the past.

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