Addiction: It retrains the brain, is tougher on women

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

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.)


  1. Rocio

    ya meetings didnt do ainyhntg for me either the problem is family and friends mean well but gambling isnt really a disease like other addictions and most addictions arent diseases some have a chemical dependency gambling does NOT gambling is always a player WANTS to either action, money, both, escaping reality and maybe a few other reasons having someone truly explain the odds in a casino game if you are addicted to lottery or slots or table games can really open your eyes the house edge is so big you truly can not do these for a living and or expect to hit it big- if you are addicted to games that ARE beatable like Blackjack or Sports betting or Poker you just need to ask yourself is chasing a dream worth it while these games are beatable its the 1% that beats them. Now we all want to accomplish greatness but this road has a high risk and most fail. the more people you have dependent upon you should weigh heavily if your a kid with no spouse or kids dependent on you, I will give more latitude in terms of chasing your gambling dreams, but if you have people dependent on you you need to make an adult decision personal responsibility is EVERYTHING YES the choice is yours, but I would suggest that if you have a spouse or kids, you also have to consider their feelings also, gambling is a narrow road with little middle ground between Big Dreams and Heartbreak and the Falls can be great, and while maybe you can handle it, other people in your life maybe cant or don’t deserve to go through it because they are not affected by gambling and the appeal isn’t there for them to risk it all for the small chance of winning it all!!!! Meetings can only help but they aren’t the whole solution- your right they occupy your time- they give you people that have been through the same stuff they aren’t judgmental but they treat you like a child, its never your fault, your have a disease, which I dont agree with its never a bad thing to admit its ALL your fault when it is, and most gamblers its TOTALLY our fault because we risk everything and more than money for a dream and an opportunity!!!!Good luck to you

  2. Rome

    Whitney Houston had money yet as scripture tells us, “my people perish for the lack of knowledge”… It is sad that she could have learned much at a women’s rehab center such as the one at Tampa rehab center

    • Juan

      Laughing! (But we all know that toe cleavage is one of those ltltie known secret weapons that drives certain men wild ) Sorry about your foot! (Drink heavily to ease the pain. Dr. Big Little Wolf’s orders.)

  3. haneen

    addiction is a psychiatric disorder , its a great article 🙂

  4. Athena Rock

    I find it tragic that Whitney Houston has died at such a young age from what appears to be a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol. My heart goes out to her family.

    It is really sad that nobody in her inner circle realized that she needed help,or, if they did, did nothing about it. They will have to live with that guilt.

    RIP Whitney.

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