The discovery that some brains are more vulnerable
to addiction than others requires a major shift in thinking
that can be as challenging as addiction itself
WRITTEN BY COLLEEN SETO
When it comes to addiction, research ischanging the way we think about theinteraction between what we’re bornwith (our genes) and the lives we lead(our experiences).
Addiction is a chronic condition thataffects the brain’s reward and motivationsystems. But well before an addictiontakes hold, brain development plays acritical role in a person’s susceptibilityto addiction in the first place. Earlychildhood experiences, as far back asthe pre- and postnatal periods, can alterbrain architecture in ways that may makeaddiction more likely.
Nurturing relationships, particularlyup to age six, are essential for healthybrain development. Adverse childhoodexperiences (see When Growing Upis Hard to Do, page 36) can lead totoxic stress, which can damage brainarchitecture, limit brain growth, hindermemory and spatial navigation skills andlower immunity to infection.
Children who live through several
adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
may grow up to be adults who have
difficulty coping with stress and
anxiety— in part because of how their
brains were shaped by their experiences
during this critical time.
The idea that certain brains are moreat risk of addiction requires a major shiftin thinking, something that can be aschallenging as addiction itself.
The Alberta Family WellnessInitiative (AFWI) was founded by thePalix Foundation to give Albertans “acommon framework of understanding”about leading-edge science in earlychildhood development, mental healthand addiction. The AFWI works with theWashington, D.C.-based Frame WorksInstitute, a non-profit organization thathelps translate science and research intoeveryday language.
Frame Works’ report for the AFWI,
Cracks in the Brain: Enhancing Albertans’Understanding of the Developmental Causesof Addiction, uses the metaphor of “brainfault lines” to describe new scientificknowledge about how addictions form.
Like a fault line in the earth, people’s
brains can develop small cracks. In some
cases, fault lines appear as the brain
develops. They can also develop over
time as people experience toxic stress.
Other times, people may have been born
with fault lines. Just as fault lines in
the earth’s core can set off earthquakes,
fault lines in the brain can affect brain
WHAT WE NOW KNOWABOUT ADDICTION
Research into brain developmentand addiction reveals:
• Our brains can haveunderlying susceptibilities orfault lines
• These fault lines stem from anumber of sources, includingwhen brain architecture is built
• Fault lines are beyond anindividual’s control
• Fault lines must be triggered tobecome a problem or addiction
• Fault lines do not alwaysbecome a problem or addiction
• Fault lines can be recognizedand managed.