Lately, (and just "for fun" :o) I've been watching YouTube videos featuring talks by Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of the NIH/NIDA, the National Institute of Health and National Institute on Drug Addiction. Dr. Volkow is a psychiatrist and has spent her life studying the human brain and how it is affected by drugs of addiction. I believe she is taking part in some of the most current and forward thinking topics on addiction, teen brain development, teen addiction and the need for vaccines to treat addiction.
I have written in the past on addiction and mental illness, and posed the question of whether drug addiction is a mental illness (more here). The truth is that the teen brain is delicate and the process of maturing and becoming an adult brain should not be taken lightly. Given that the teen brain goes through a huge period of development and the fact that many teens expose themselves to risk taking behaviors (which may include drug use) means that a brain that might have the predisposed condition towards mental illness will be adversely compromised if exposed to chronic drug use during the early teen years.
Many teens think the marijuana is "harmless". Please look at the video above, particularly at the 6:45 minute mark where Dr. Volkow answers a teen's question about whether marijuana use is harmful. The answer and explanation Dr. Volkow gives made this entire lecture hall of teens think twice about using marijuana.
In particular, I am very interested in the 'why?' behind drug use and abuse, and the role dopamine plays in the addict's choice to use, even when he states 'I don't even really enjoy it anymore.' Dr. Volkow's description on how dopamine is tied to the brain's function, and that the brain is conditioned almost more by the actions associated with preparing to use a drug than to the actual affect the brain receives by the actual drug use. Dr. Volkow states the brain of an addict sees drug use as critical to their survival. More on this can be found in this presentation on Addiction: A Disease of Free Will).
Will there be a vaccine for drug addiction? Currently, the issue is at the center of a large debate. Drug companies are not convinced it is "necessary". The bottom line is, of course, profits. But, the driving force is the fact that addiction is still very stigmatized. It is seen as a choice, or an issue of free will. "If they really wanted to stop using, they would." The true question is why would someone risk the loss of absolutely everything in life, including their very OWN life, in order to fuel their addiction?
It is necessary to embrace addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, where drug use disrupts the circuitry of the brain that enable a person to make healthy decisions for themselves. When the stigmatization of addiction is dropped, and the healthcare system embraces addiction and mental illness as a disease, when the person dealing with a co-morbid disorder of addiction combined with mental illness can get necessary treatment from the medical community without feeling inferior or shamed by society, then things might change. When we can treat these people with empathy from a disease we call addiction, they may finally get the help they need.