Neuroscience and genetic research on addiction are beginning to make significant progress in understanding the changes in the brain that underlie drug use and addictive behaviours. Neuroscientists now understand how addictive drugs produce neurochemical changes in the brain’s reward pathway that make their use so appealing, and that drive some to use them repeatedly despite the harm that they cause.
The emerging understanding of the neurobiological basis of addiction opens up the possibility of powerful new technologies for the treatment and, more controversially, the prevention of addiction or even to develop less harmful substances. But neuroscience research on addiction also has the potential to significantly affect both the way in which we think about addiction, and those that suffer from it.
Hence, in light of recent research, there is a constant need to question the ethical and social implications of these developments but also to ensure that these findings are applied in ways that will maximise benefits for the individual and society and avoid unintended or unwelcome consequences.
This report reviews developments in the neuroscience of addition, explores how they might affect the way we view and treat drug problems and considers the issues that they raise for drug policy in Europe. In language that is easily accessible, the report presents the complex brain processes involved in addiction and the ethical implications inherent to current addiction research.
This briefing paper for policymakers presents how new discoveries in neurobiology have the potential to transform our perception of drug addiction and its treatment whilst also considering the ethical issues such treatment can raise. It balances an analysis of the latest developments in the field with a call for rigorous testing before implementation.
A synopsis of the biological and physiological background of addiction is presented in Chapter 2 of this publication (see section 'Neurobiology of addiction'). The overview focuses mainly on the cerebral mesolimbic dopaminergic system, part of the so-called reward system in the brain.