Why do some people become addicted and others not?

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Why do some people become addicted and others not?


This is a really interesting question, and one which is really important. I will give you three possible explanations, because this is not the main subject of this talk.

One of the explanations is that somehow some people’s brains are just different. That people who become addicted have a predisposition to addiction. Certainly there is some evidence for this, but even so this does not seem to be enough to fully explain why some people get addicted but others don’t. We also know that even in twin studies, where the genes are the same, one twin may become addicted, while another may not.

The next explanation is that perhaps people are using drugs to self-medicate other conditions. This idea was explored by Khantzian. This model essentially proposes that people become addicted because they have underlying psychological and psychiatric conditions they are trying to medicate away. This is indeed and attractive theory, especially when we consider that there is a large correlation between psychiatric disorders and drug use.

There is another possible explanation, and this was shown by a really interesting experiment done by Bruce Alexander. This experiment was called Rat Park. One of the so-called proofs of chemical addiction came from experiments done on rats. Rats were stuck in things called skinner boxes and small cages and taught to self-administer drugs. The rats became addicted and chose the drugs over food and water. Therefore drugs must be addictive.

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Professor Bruce Alexander thought that this was not the obvious conclusion, and had another hypothesis and decided to test it. Knowing that rats were gregarious creatures, he wondered how they’d behave if they were in a more sociable environment. So he and his team built Rat Park – a space that had all the things that a rat could want – cedar wood shavings, cans, boxes and even pretty pictures of forests on the wall, and most importantly, they put in other rats of both sexes! I won’t go into the details of the experiment, but the bottom line is that the rats of Rat Park didn’t use heroin, even if the heroin was added to a sweetened solution, while rats in isolated little cages did use the heroin, and in great quantities.

Then, just to prove the point further, Alexander and colleagues created a bunch of heroin addicted rats and then moved them into Rat Park to see if they remained addicted. What do you know, they stopped using heroin and preferred to live their rat life in rat paradise un-tainted by the haze of opiate addiction!

So, I’ve just shown that given the right environment, rats can recover from their heroin addiction. Is the same true for humans?

It appears so. A tragic point in modern history provides the data for this. The Vietnam War.

So remember we said that about 20% of people who use heroin run the risk of becoming addicted. If we look at US troops in Vietnam, that figures rockets to about 45%.

And when these GIs returned home, only 12% continued using heroin (Robins, Helzer et al. 1980).

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