It is scary to think that someone you love might have an addiction, but it is important to keep in mind that you are not alone in the struggle. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that at least 23.9 million Americans have tried drugs, and a large number of them developed a subsequent dependence on them.1 The staggering figures regarding drug addiction have encouraged researchers to conduct clinical studies and look for recovery strategies and evidence-based solutions.

What medical science has discovered is that dependence is a biological process. This simply means that there is a scientific approach to recovery, as well. Consider some of the things science has discovered about drug abuse, addiction and treatment.

What are Addiction and Recovery Strategies?

Drug addiction is a brain disease – that is one of the most crucial discoveries science has made to date. At one time, it was believed that people made a choice when it came to chronic drug use. The medical community now has a better understanding of the scientific process of addiction and how it affects the brain.

Repeated drug use changes the brain, and this change makes it difficult to control impulses. An addicted individual may understand that a drug is harmful, but the changes to the brain make it hard to stop without help.

Drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease.2 This enlightenment has led to more progressive recovery options for those with addictions.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

The understanding that chronic drug use changes the brain led to more extensive research on the biochemical processes involved in addiction. Drug use is intrinsically rewarding behavior. What this means is that using drugs stimulates the reward center of the brain. Repeated stimulation diminishes the drug’s effect, so you need to take more to get the same high.

Over time, the body becomes adapted to the drug’s chemistry and going without it leads to withdrawal. If you manage to avoid using the drug long enough for the withdrawal symptoms to subside, you develop a reverse tolerance. This means even a small amount of the drug can get you using again.

Beyond Brain Chemistry

There is a psychological and genetic component to drug addiction as well. A family history of addiction makes a person more vulnerable, for example. Genetics account for about 50 percent of the risk.3

Environmental factors play a role, as well. Things like psychosocial stress, lifestyle, nicotine or alcohol use contribute to a person’s risk of drug abuse and eventual dependence.

The Scientific Approach to Treatment

Because drug addiction is such a complex illness, it is important to approach treatment in phases. It starts with medical intervention to help with impulse control and withdrawal. Over time, treatment professionals teach the client and family to build a nurturing environment that supports a healthy lifestyle and recovery strategies.

Thanks to science, treatment is approached systematically:

  • Clinicians help manage the physical symptoms
  • Counselors address the psychological side of addiction, such as feelings of self-hate
  • Centers use group therapy to deal with the psychosocial pressures that help lead to drug use

Aftercare resources and recovery strategies allow the client to reenter society to enhance recovery. This includes things like getting a job, reconnecting with friends and making smart life choices.

Recovery is a challenge, but science has improved on the healing process by defining the disease. Understanding the various risk factors and the chemical process of addiction was paramount in improving prevention and enhancing recovery strategies.


  1. “Nationwide Trends,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2014
  2. “Scientific Research has Revolutionized our Understanding of Drug Abuse and Addiction,” NIH Medline Plus, 2011
  3. Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, “Cellular basis of memory for addiction” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, December 2013