An addiction vaccine. A cure for cravings. A removal of the effects of drugs. To those who have suffered from their own or a family member’s drug use, these possibilities sound like magic. But are they as good as they sound? Medical advances in the field of addiction research have grown enormously in recent years, due mostly to new ways of studying the living human brain. Scientists have gained new understanding of how different drugs affect specific parts of the brain, and many new medications are being tested to help recovering addicts or even prevent addiction in those who are vulnerable.
While these drugs have helped some people recover, they may not be the miracle drug they appear to be.
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The Link Between Pleasure, Pain and Addiction
The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes how drugs affect the brain. The reward pathway in the brain exists to motivate people to repeat actions that are beneficial for health and happiness. Food, sex, sleep and bonding with others all stimulate the reward pathway into releasing dopamine and solidify the experience as something that should be repeated. When drugs or alcohol are used, this reward function of the brain is overloaded with an unnatural stimulation. Opiates are actually more effective than our natural painkillers, which is why they make us feel so good, and cocaine causes dopamine to work more effectively. The downside is our bodies become less able to stop pain and feel normal pleasure on their own. Spending time with loved ones, healthy food and other previously enjoyable activities no longer have any effect on someone suffering from addiction. Tolerance to drugs makes abstinence physically painful, because the drug has replaced normal reward path functioning.
As scientists discover more about the human brain, they have found links to lower levels of dopamine and addiction. This has given rise to the understanding that addiction is a brain disease and not a moral failing, but it also complicates some types of medication; if the underlying imbalance is not addressed with counseling and traditional treatment methods, medication is unlikely to work long term.
Myths About Pharmaceutical Treatments for Addiction
People desperate to get rid of addiction may jump at the chance to try prescription medication, but it’s important to keep these drugs in perspective. Some misconceptions that should be considered:
- These pills will fix my drug use. Only you can fix your drug use by uncovering your motivation to use and finding healthy alternatives.
- This is the only solution I need. Even when prescription medications and vaccines for addiction work, they often work best when used with other treatment methods at the same time.
- I’ll never become addicted again. Medication for addiction is usually very drug-specific, and users may become addicted to a different substance after recovering from addiction.
- Medication for addiction will make quitting easy. Addiction is difficult to break, and even with medication, becoming sober will be a life-changing event. Support from loved ones and other recovering addicts is instrumental to success.
Why Aren’t These Drugs More Well-Known?
The stigma of drug abuse is a constant problem for those suffering from addiction, and treating addiction in exclusive treatment centers like any other medical problem is relatively new. Experienced addiction counselors are often skeptical about quick-fix solutions for addiction, as are former addicts who when through the difficult treatment process.
Pharmaceutical companies are also unlikely to put much support behind these drugs, as the profit for a one-time vaccine or temporary drug isn’t as great as a daily pill someone must take for the rest of their life.
Various Types of Medication for Addiction
The Fix discusses some of the strategies researchers have used to design medication that helps treat addiction:
- Replacement therapy. Methadone and buprenorphine are synthetic opiates that replace heroin and stronger, more harmful prescription opiates. The upside is that someone addicted to drugs such as heroin, morphine, codeine and oxycodone may live a healthier longer life by taking methadone. Critics argue that replacement drugs are harder to kick than other opiates, and replace one addiction for another.
- Medication that causes discomfort when drugs are used. Disulfiram (brand name Antabuse) is an example of this type of medicine. Disulfiram prevents alcohol from being properly processed in the body. A recovering alcoholic who takes disulfiram and then drinks alcohol will feel ill after only a few minutes, similar to a bad hangover. The drug becomes stronger the longer a person takes it. The downside is the drug does nothing for cravings; many people who still want to drink just stop taking it.
- Vaccines that prevent drugs from reaching the brain. The Los Angeles Times reports on the challenges, both scientific and cultural, of making these vaccines effective for the wider problem of addiction. While they work well for some people, others feel no effect, and the vaccine may need to be taken many times.
- Medication that gets rid of cravings. Naltrexone is one of the more popular medications for addiction, and is applicable to both opiates and alcohol. Naltrexone reduces cravings and the effects of alcohol and opiates by blocking specific opiate receptors. Once again, if nothing is done to stop the emotional cravings, a person who still wants to get high can just stop taking naltrexone.
Possible Complications for People Recovering From Addiction
Addiction causes changes to the brain, sometimes lasting changes. Regular drug use can permanently damage the brain’s dopamine receptors, which is why many people relapse – they simply cannot feel physical or emotional pleasure without drugs. A recovering addict may stay sober for months but, after being miserable for so long, may eventually pick up a new drug if the old one no longer works due to medication. A suffering addict who hasn’t spent quality time in counseling may become desperate if they can no longer get high, and may use large amounts of drugs to overcome their resistance.
These drugs are extremely difficult to make work for the public at large; they are generally very specific to certain drugs. The downside of this is that there are always new synthetic opiates and speed drugs being developed, both by pharmaceutical companies and on the black market.
Medication for addiction may sound like a good idea, but to affect the way addiction works is to manipulate the basics of reward function in the brain. This could damage a person’s ability to feel pleasure from other activities, or it may make other helpful drugs less effective. People who become addicted to drugs are often self-medicating for an underlying health issue such as depression or anxiety that has a basis in brain chemistry. What if a drug hampers the ability for medicinal relief for the condition that caused them to use in the first place?
Side Effects of Anti-Addiction Medication
According to The Fix,there are side effects that may occur when taking anti-addiction medication:
- Verenicline. Meant for nicotine addiction, this drug can lead to suicidal thoughts and cardiovascular problems, similar to nicotine itself.
- Methadone. Replacement opiates may help someone get by, but may be worse in the long run. Methadone clinics cause people shame and replacement drugs may be harder to quit after long-term dependence.
- TA-CD. This vaccine for cocaine doesn’t work for everyone, and may lose its effectiveness over time.
- Naltrexone. This drug used for alcohol and opiates will also make pain medication less effective. If a person takes opiates while taking naltrexone, they may override the drug and overdose. After stopping naltrexone, the opioid receptors remain more sensitive than normal, which may also lead to accidental overdose.
- Topiramate. Initially used to treat seizures, this drug assists with compulsivity and cravings, but may cause depression and suicidal thoughts.
Anti-Addiction Medications Aren’t the Final Solution
Is Medication for Addiction Right for Me?
The best chance of successful recovery comes from medication combined with other forms of treatment. Some questions to help you decide if this is the right method for you:
- How do you feel about the prospect of no longer feeling the effects of your drug of choice? Are you relieved or disappointed?
- Are you already committed to having a healthy sober life and all the changes that entails?
- Have you made positive progress towards sobriety, such as openly discussing your substance abuse with loved ones and seeking therapy?
- Are you prepared for long-term treatment, from medication, counseling or both?
Getting Started Is the Important Part
Our society is filled with people looking for a quick fix: for weight loss, relationships, money problems and addiction. Ironically, addiction is just that – a quick fix for some other problem. But with addiction, the consequences can be severe and, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to a shortened and unhappy life. Taking a vaccine or pill to get rid of addiction may assist genuine attempts at sobriety, or may just be a way to appease family members, or a way to pretend you want to quit when you might not be ready yet.
Addiction happens because there’s a need in your life that’s not being met, because you are suffering due to some biological or environmental factor. Whether you decide medication is the right option to assist your recovery, or you choose more traditional methods alone, working towards ending dependence on drugs or alcohol is a worthwhile goal and always achievable to those who reach out for help.