Since the opioid epidemic started to make national headlines, other news stories began to emerge touting the discovery of “cures for addiction.” Buzzfeed reported that a scientist named Dr. Stanley Glick discovered the cure for addiction in a drug called or 18-methoxycoronaridine (18-MC). The drug is made from ibogaine, a powerful psychedelic that can be found in West Africa.
Vice also recently reported on a team of researchers at Purdue University that’s working toward identifying and isolating a possible genetic cause for addiction. Scientists and researchers all over the world are working hard to find an end to this disease that affects so many people. However, addiction is complex and multilayered.
No one addiction treatment works for everyone, because addiction can be caused by many factors and take different forms. If they find a way to counteract one particular aspect that contributes to addiction, like cravings or genetic predispositions, other factors will still pose a problem. It seems likely that we will find exciting new ways to treat addiction, but one cure that works for everyone seems unlikely.
We Are Built to Satisfy Pleasure
We are a pleasure-seeking people. For much of human history, our drive to find things that give us pleasure has helped us survive. If you are a hunter-gatherer in a nomadic tribe of people, and you find a sweet berry that’s good for food, your limbic system (the reward center) will be firing on all cylinders. All the feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin will go to work to tell you that what you’re doing is great and you should do it more often.
Today, those instincts to find a stimulus that causes pleasure hasn’t gone away. Even though most of the people in the western world have more than enough berries, our brains still crave sugar to the point of excess. Our instincts aren’t aware that previously rare high-sugar foods are available in abundance at every convenience store and department store check-out line.
Humans have found a way to cut out all the work of finding good things that cause a reward response by using drugs that flood our system with the chemicals that come from that response. Drugs like heroin bind to receptors in our brain that are designed to attach to naturally occurring chemicals like endorphins. Endorphins are released in moderate amounts in response to an appropriate stimulus. Drugs bypass natural functions to create their own intense high. Now, your limbic system’s deep desire for pleasure reacts like you’d expect when flooded with those feel-good chemicals. It wants more. Drug abuse teaches your brain to seek the most potent reward-producing stimulus.
Addiction Will Find a Way
In our society, we are always seeking new ways to achieve the pleasure we are designed to find, which is why drug use is so hard to stop. The war on drugs has taught us that addiction, on a societal level, is a wicked problem, meaning that it’s an issue that resists all attempts at a solution. From synthetic designer drugs created in illegal laboratories to get around drug laws to sniffing household products, there is always a new way to get bypass any roadblocks in the ways of drug abuse.
During active addiction, people will go to extreme lengths to satiate cravings, clandestine drug industries go to great lengths to circumvent drug laws, and curious or hurting people find new and old ways to satisfy the draw of drug use.
We Are Built to Hate Pain
As much as our brain love pleasure, it hates pain. In fact, pain affects our limbic system (as well as other parts of the brain) in a similar way that drugs do. Pain enters the body through nociceptors, special receptors designed to detect damaging stimuli. These receptors send pain signals to the spine (more specifically, the dorsal root ganglion) and then to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus relays that pain signal to the hypothalamus and limbic system to teach you to avoid the pain you just experienced again.
Your brain teaches you to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Drugs offer quick solutions to both of those impulses, despite the fact that it’s a temporary fix that can often make things worse in the long run. Opioids and other nervous system suppressants can ease pain and cause you to feel euphoria. Unfortunately, it takes an effort to deal with physical and psychological pain, and sometimes pain can be chronic. Drugs can often be an attractive, quick fix. Plus, drugs may cause more pain leading to a self-perpetuating cycle.
Other Factors in Addiction
Addiction isn’t only caused by the power of drug dependence alone. It’s true that many addictions can come from a decision to explore curiosity, but there are a variety of factors that contribute to an addiction. People use drugs to feel good, yes, but they also use them to feel better. Anxiety, depression, panic disorders, and other mental illness often contribute to addiction. In some cases, these disorders can be debilitating, and people will look for ways to “self-medicate.”
Addiction can also come from environmental factors like your living environment, work stresses, and your relationship with your family. Non-genetic and exogenous factors can be hard to pin down with a potential one-size-fits-all cure.
Treatment That Works Is Available
All of these reasons that make it difficult to find a cure to addiction doesn’t mean we are doomed to be continually ravaged by the addiction epidemic. Evidence-based treatment methods that have proven to lead to lasting addiction exist. Behavioral therapies that address people as individuals can help those struggling with addiction dig deeper into the root of the problem. Experimental therapies like art therapy, equine therapy, and acupuncture can help to personalize treatment, answering the specific needs an individual might have.
And it’s true that we have made and will be make exciting strides in addiction treatment. Naloxone, the drug that stops opioid overdose, has saved countless lives already. Other medications like Dr. Glick’s 18-MC may one day be an effective tool in the fight against addiction. Still, it’s important not to wait for or expect a cure.
Like diabetes, addiction is a chronic disease, but it’s one that’s treatable. If you want to learn more about your treatment options, call Pathway to Hope at 844-557-8575 to start your road to recovery.