Harvard Health Publications

Addiction: It retrains the brain, is tougher on women

Posted By Howard LeWine, M.D. On February 16, 2012

While driving to work yesterday, I heard a fascinating exchange between a DJ and a psychologist about the untimely death of singer Whitney Houston. DJ Matt Siegel (aka Matty in the Morning) wanted to understand this about the pop star: “Why the resistance to getting better when you see this brilliant career is completely gone and you’re a mess. Why the resistance to help when it’s available?”

“That’s what addiction is,” answered Seattle-based psychologist and addiction expert Gregg Jantz. He hit the nail on the head.

The word “addiction” comes from a Latin term meaning “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone with an addiction understands this; those without have a hard time comprehending it. Blame this enslavement on the brain, its love of pleasure, and how it learns.

Anything pleasing—from a touch or a delicious food to a drug-induced high or a gambling win—causes a release of a chemical called dopamine in part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. Drugs of abuse and other addictions trigger particularly powerful surges of dopamine. Here’s where the brain’s learning pathways come into play.

Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it. This process motivates someone to seek out the source of pleasure. (You can read more about how addiction hijacks the brain in this article from the Harvard Mental Health Letter.)

Although men are more likely than women to become addicted to drugs or harmful behaviors, women who have an addiction face tougher challenges. They tend to progress more quickly from using an addictive substance to dependence. They tend to find it harder to break an addiction than men, are more susceptible to relapse, and develop medical or social consequences of their addiction faster. (You can read more about addiction in women in this article from the Harvard Mental Health Letter.)

Related Information: Overcoming Addiction: Paths toward recovery

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