A once-a-month alcoholism shot? An anti-cigarette pill? Could happen

Image by alancleaver_2000 via Flickr

For those of us who got off addictions the old-fashioned way, reports from the recent American Psychiatric Association‘s annual meeting sound like good news, even if it’s a little late in coming. AP Medical writer Lauran Neergaard summed up the latest:

“This is the next frontier in substance abuse: Better understanding of how addiction overlaps with other brain diseases is sparking a hunt to see if a treatment for one might also help another.

We’re not talking about attempts just to temporarily block an addict’s high. Today’s goal is to change the underlying brain circuitry that leaves substance abusers prone to relapse.

It’s “a different way of looking at mental illnesses, including substance abuse disorders,” says National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkow, who on Monday urged researchers at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting to get more creative in the quest for brain-changing therapies for addiction.

Rather than a problem in a single brain region, scientists increasingly believe that psychiatric diseases are a result of dysfunctioning circuits spread over multiple regions, leaving them unable to properly communicate and work together. That disrupts, for example, the balance between impulsivity and self-control that plays a crucial role in addiction.

Addiction is a strange phenomenon, and we who know a lot about it (this writer kicked cigarettes in the 60s, alcohol in the 80s, crunching ice — you haven’t ever met an ice-crunching addict? Believe it. — five or six years ago) say it’s about time we got our own dysfunctional circuitry studies.

Think of it as if the brain were an orchestra, its circuits the violins and the piano and the brass section, all smoothly starting and stopping their parts on cue, Volkow told The Associated Press.

“That orchestration is disrupted in psychiatric illness,” she explains. “There’s not a psychiatric disease that owns one particular circuit.”

So NIDA, part of the National Institutes of Health, is calling for more research into treatments that could target circuits involved with cognitive control, better decision-making and resistance to impulses.

Addictive behavior has drawn attention from researchers and writers for years. A 1983 study done for the National Academy of Sciences by Alan R. Lang, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University reported that “some mental health experts find it useful to view addiction as including all self-destructive, compulsive behaviors”  and cited references to addictions as wide-ranging as caffeine (guilty), chocolate (definitely) and gambling (not on your life.)

Changing behaviors to conquer addictions, with a little help from therapies and therapists of all sorts, has been plugging along as a solution for decades. Takes a lot of work. Wouldn’t a magic pill be lovely?

Targeting brain circuits for addiction, relapse.


  1. I know that hereditary factors play large in the addiction process. Role models (cigarettes looked so cool when I started smoking at nineteen – quit at twenty two), childhood trauma – abuse, fear, insecurity – and the documented brain wiring all can lead to the “bad stuff.” Yesterday, we all watched the U-Tube video of the amazing “two year old smoking baby.” The mother had smoked throughout her pregnancy – that seemed key to me. My experience with family members who have addictions – negative behavior precipitated by drugs, drinking, gambling, or cigarettes – would lead me to believe that anything is worth a try. Where can i buy that pill? Tom Medlicott

    1. My parents were teetotalers who never smoked, go figure. But I learned as an adult there was rampant addiction in both families (well, probably; nobody talked about it.) About the smoking baby, though, the kid has some serious problems ahead. I often say, truthfully!, if I were tied to a tree & had to drink a beer or smoke a cigarette to be free I’d take the beer in a heartbeat. That’s how strong THAT (nicotine) addiction remains, and I quit 40+ years ago. The pill may arrive soon, who knows; following the neuroscience people (as I do, with some awe) is fascinating.

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