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The Science Behind Addiction. Why Does It Affect Some People More Than Others?

Table of Contents

The truth is anyone can become an addict whether they are a hero working on the front lines or a teen who succumbs to peer pressure. Risk factors make addiction more likely to take place in some people. It is a combination of biology and environment that make some people more susceptible to addiction.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a behavioral flaw or poor judgment. Addiction causes a person to compulsively seek a drug, regardless of the consequences to their health, life or families.

Drugs like alcohol, heroin or cocaine alter the way the brain communicates with the rest of the body. Taking a drug stimulates the reward center in the brain. That is why people come back after the first use. Over time, it takes more of the drug with each use to get the same stimulation. The increased need creates a pattern that fosters the addiction.

How this happens depends on the drug. For example, heroin has a similar chemical structure as the neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for pleasure. A person takes heroin and the brain mistakes the drug for the neurotransmitter, triggering the high. Other drugs like cocaine stimulate the release of the natural neurotransmitter instead. Either way, when a person takes the drug, it rewards them by creating pleasure.

Why Do Some People Become Addicted When Others Don’t?

The biological process of drug abuse is the same for everyone, so why do some people develop an addiction? There is no one variable that increases a person’s risk for addiction. Instead, it is a combination of factors that makes one person more susceptible.

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Comorbid mental problems

Drug use allows a person to self-medicate in order to deal with emotional issues., for example, may drive a person to use. One study shows that 84 percent of people with antisocial personality disorder also have a substance abuse problem. Over time, the changes in the brain create the addiction and it becomes difficult to stop without medical intervention and behavioral therapy. (2)


The things people deal with on a daily basis can be overwhelming. This is especially true when you have a stressful job that requires you take risks or see others that are in pain.


Genetic influence can be a substantial concern when looking at the big picture behind addiction, but it is rarely the only factor. It is estimated that heritability for alcoholism, for example, is between 50 to 60 percent. In other words, a person with a parent who was an alcoholic has up to a 60 percent risk of developing a drinking problem.

Ultimately, it is biology that creates the addiction. Risk factors can make that happen faster or be more likely in some people, but you can become an addict even if there is no family history.

If you have a loved one with a substance abuse problem, the more pressing question is what should you do about it? Few addicts stop using without intervention and treatment. Family members are generally the first one to see a problem and in the best position to influence the addict, regardless of how the addiction started. Once in treatment, the professionals at Destination Hope will look closer at the path the addict took and the risk factors that may influence the chance of relapse.

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  1. “Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, November 2012,</a>
  2. “Biological Components of Substance Abuse and Addiction,” Princeton University, September 1993,</a>
  3. Chloe C. Y. Wong,”Genetics of addictions: strategies for addressing heterogeneity and polygenicity of substance use disorders,”Philosophical Transactions of the Roay Soiciety B, October 2008,</a>

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