By Michelle Quilter, PsyD, CASAC

“Why can’t you just drink like a normal person?” “Don’t you think about the consequences?” These are two questions that the addicted client has heard hundreds of times and now, we know the answers; “No” and “No”. A recent article released by Harvard University states that “addictive substances commandeer the brain’s reward system and undermine peoples’ determination to make wise choices, even when they know they are likely to suffer as a result.” In addition, they explain that “since faulty brain circuits don’t return to normal right away, if ever, detoxification is rarely enough to keep someone sober. Long-term treatment is essential.” Studies using fMRIs have shown that when an addict is in the obsession phase of their addiction, the frontal lobes’ functioning is suppressed. Therefore, they do not and cannot appreciate the consequences of their actions. This reinforces the knowledge that addiction is a disease of the brain.

Harvard University reports that “a feature common to all addictive drugs is that they stimulate the release of the chemical messenger dopamine into a cluster of nerve cells deep in the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This yields a sensation of pleasure that many people want to experience again and again.” At Lifeskills of South Florida, we offer long-term treatment and psychotherapy which allows clients to create new neural pathways and develop new habits and effective coping skills. We encourage clients to become engaged in community self-help groups that will assist in reinforcing a lifestyle of abstinence, sobriety, and recovery. We encourage clients to build a life that will be consistent with their recovery so that staying clean becomes the new reward and self-efficacy, the new source of the sensation of pleasure.

Advances in research regarding addiction and the role of neurochemistry will increase the likelihood that those suffering from the disease of addiction will gain access to treatment and spend less time in the correctional system. If these offenders are receiving cognitive and behavioral treatment which aide in changing the reward pathways of the brain, they will be less likely to reoffend and crime will naturally decrease as a byproduct. As Harvard University asserts, “as we get better educated about the science behind these illnesses, we will do a better job of just saying yes to people who need help with their addictions.”