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Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that
manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of
addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing
involvement with it despite adverse consequences. While
overcoming addiction is possible, the process is often long,
slow, and complicated. It took years for researchers and
policymakers to arrive at this understanding.
In the 1930s, when researchers first began to investigate what
caused addictive behavior, they believed that people who
developed addictions were somehow morally flawed or lacking in
willpower. Overcoming addiction, they thought, involved punishing
miscreants or, alternately, encouraging them to muster the will
to break a habit.
The scientific consensus has changed since then. Today we
recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain
structure and function. Just as cardiovascular disease damages
the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks
the brain. Recovery from addiction involves willpower, certainly,
but it is not enough to "just say no". Instead, people typically
use multiple strategies — including psychotherapy, medication,
and self-care — as they try to break the grip of an
Another shift in thinking about addiction has occurred as well.
For many years, experts believed that only alcohol and powerful
drugs could cause addiction. Neuroimaging technologies and more
recent research, however, have shown that certain pleasurable
activities, such as gambling, shopping, and sex, can also co-opt
the brain. Although
the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth
Edition (DSM-IV) describes
multiple addictions, each tied to a specific substance or
activity, consensus is emerging that these may represent multiple
expressions of a common underlying brain process.
Treating an underactive thyroid gland may improve mood.
When someone develops depression, the brain usually becomes the
focus of attention. But other organs can be the source of the
problem. A common example is when the thyroid gland produces too
little hormone — a condition known as hypothyroidism.
Nearly 10 million Americans suffer from hypothyroidism. The
condition is much more common in women than in men, and becomes
more prevalent with age. As many as one in five women will
develop hypothyroidism by age 60.
Although researchers aren't entirely sure why there is a link
between hypothyroidism and depression, it is likely that some
people are taking antidepressants when they should really be
taking thyroid medication. Here is a brief review of when
clinicians and patients should consider hypothyroidism as a
possible cause of low mood — and what to do next.
Putting an experience into words may ease stress and trauma.
Stress, trauma, and unexpected life developments — such as a
cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or a layoff — can throw people
off stride emotionally and mentally. The natural response is to
wonder why something bad happened and what to do next. In some
people, this can lead to rumination — dwelling on the event — and
possibly to a mental health problem, such as depression or
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Expressive writing — a technique that involves writing about
thoughts and feelings that arise from a traumatic or stressful
life experience — may help some people cope with the emotional
fallout of such events. But it's not a cure-all, and it won't
work for everyone. Expressive writing appears to be more
effective for healthy people who have sustained an emotional blow
than it is for people struggling with ongoing or severe mental
health challenges, such as major depression or PTSD.
Deep brain stimulation is still considered an experimental
treatment for depression, but one small study suggests that some
patients could benefit from it.
Another study adds to the evidence that exercise helps protect
the brain from cognitive decline in older age.
Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health
Letter, discusses the findings of an FDA advisory committee
regarding the question of whether artificial food colorings and
additives contribute to behavioral issues in children.