‘Wired for addiction’

Addiction specialist addresses work comp health symposium

By Tony Gottschlich, BWC Public Information Officer

Many believe drug addicts are weak-willed people of diminished moral character who choose drugs, getting high and even criminal behavior over a proper, law-abiding life.

And they would be wrong, a longtime psychiatrist and addiction specialist said Friday morning at the 2017 Ohio Workers’ Compensation Medical & Health Symposium.

“Addiction is not about the drugs or the behavior, it’s all about the brain,” said Dr. Susan K. Blank, co-founder and chief medical officer for The Atlanta Healing Center, an outpatient treatment recovery program. “This is a genetically inherited brain disease.”

Blank, speaking to a capacity audience at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, spoke for an hour on the topic, “The Perfect Storm: Pathophysiology of Controlled Substance Misuse and Addiction.” Her presentation was the first continuing education session on the final day of the two-day symposium for health care professionals.

Blank explained there are three key forces behind addiction, and choice has little, if anything, to do with it. They include:

  • Genetics. Our brains are hardwired for addiction because of our genes. Some of us inherit malfunctioning “dopamine feedback loops.” When we experience pleasure, whether from food, drugs or sex, it’s because our brains are releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. In addicts, that feedback mechanism doesn’t shut down and they just want more and more, regardless of the consequences. “It’s never enough,” Blank said. This is particularly hard to overcome if the addiction started in one’s youth. That’s because drug and alcohol abuse can damage the prefrontal cortex, our brain’s impulse-control center, which is still developing into our mid 20s.

Worried your children might be future addicts? Look for the thrill-seeking child who thrives on adrenaline, the child who’s the first to take a dare. These are behaviors that demonstrate he or she is seeking a dopamine release, Blank said.

  • Exposure. Growing up around addicts increases the likelihood of addiction.
  • Environment. There must be an environmental trigger or stressor – loss of a job or loved one, for instance – that keeps the addiction cycle going.

“You have to have all three legs of that stool for addiction to manifest itself in your life,” said Blank, who is also president of the Georgia Society of Addiction Medicine. Genes alone won’t doom you.

Addictions often start through prescription drugs, she said, and can’t stop without outside help. They lead to brain changes that can’t be undone. “Our rational brain is gone.”

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States in recent years, fueled by powerful opioids, heroin especially. Ohio is the nation’s overdose death capital, with 3,050 OD deaths in 2015, or more than eight per day, according to state-by-state statistics compiled by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Blank noted that addictions aren’t limited to painkillers and street drugs, of course. People can be addicted to sugar, sex, tobacco and other dopamine triggers, too. It’s all about the dopamine. (Surprising fact to nonsmokers: “Nicotine is better than food, sex and morphine,” Blank said.)

Blank provided a number of sobering facts and statistics, including this one: “This is a chronic disease and there is no cure.”

But there is hope, she said. Addictions can be managed, and many addicts go on to live long, productive and healthy lives. Nationwide, opioid prescriptions are falling and there’s a growing awareness and understanding that addiction is a disease.

She concluded her remarks with a warning: “If you can’t escape addiction, choose yours carefully.”

The health symposium concluded Friday. It was held in conjunction with the 2017 Ohio Safety Congress & Expo, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s annual safety, health and workers’ compensation conference.

One thought on “‘Wired for addiction’

  1. Pingback: Provider perspective: Ohio Workers’ Compensation Medical & Health Symposium in photos | BWC Blog

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