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Brain Dependence: The Debate Over the Addictive Personality and Gender Implications
Though alcoholism and other damaging addictions are often be traced as symptoms of depression and other emotional distress, the relatively new notion of the "addictive personality" has a significant community of supporters. According to its supporters, the addictive personality is a distinct psychological trait that predisposes particular individuals to addictions. While the nature and the very existence of this trait is still actively debated in the medical, neurobiological and psychology communities, there are definite implications in the brain that contribute to addiction. Also important to this debate are the issues of gender in relation to addiction and how these are and are not compatible with the addictive personality theory.
Addiction, as typically defined, is a reliance on a substance or behavior that the individual has little power to resist. This definition, however, fails to address the neurological aspects of this phenomenon. Dr. Alan Leshner, PhD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction instead as "a brain disease" and "a chronic relapsing disease", in that there are visible alterations in the brains of addicted individuals and these effects are long-lasting within their neurological patterns.(1)Also important in describing addiction is addressing the types of addiction and substance abuse that are often accredited to the addictive personality. There are two primary forms of addiction, one being the substance-based, the second being behavior-based.
The substance-based addictions, such as alcoholism, as well as nicotine, prescription and narcotic addictions, are more easily explained and identified neurologically. Particular drugs, such as crack and heroine cause massive surges in dopamine in the brain, with different sensations ranging from invincibility and strength to euphoric and enlightened states. Use of these substances almost immediately changes particular aspects of the brain's behavior, making most individuals immediately susceptible to future abuse or addiction.
Also common are the behavioral addictions including gambling, shopping, eating, and sexual activity. These addictions are not as easily explained neurologically, but are generally included in the addiction susceptibility characterized by the personality trait. Also common are sorts of combined addictions, that is, addictions that include both substance, as well as behavioral aspects, most commonly the addiction to nicotine, either smoking or chewing. This particular addiction combines a physical addiction to nicotine and a mental facet, the repeated routine of the behavior, such as a cigarette after meals.
Another issue interestingly related to addiction is the relative relationship between these abuses and addictions regarding gender. A collection of recent studies have shown that male adolescents are more active in early drug and alcohol experimentation and that men in general are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol, twice as likely to routinely use marijuana, and one and a half times more likely to become addicted to cigarettes. Conversely, female adolescents are far more likely to experience the activities associated with behavioral addictions, and women far outnumber men in addictions to eating, binging and purging, thus developing eating disorders at a greater rate.(2)
This stratification may either evidence a key difference in the nature of addictive personalities and a link to gender, or it may discredit the theory as a whole, depending on perspective. It has been shown with other diseases, cancers and genetic traits that particular disorders favor one gender over another, therefore these statistics may show an interesting aspect of the genetic or neurobiological nature of the inherited trait. On the other hand, the variances in the addictions of men and women are often traced to societal values and the images presented to young men and women. In one interesting element of this debate, it seems that the popular image of alcohol consumption among Americans as in mass advertising is one that is largely geared towards men. Some of the symptoms of alcohol consumption and drunkenness are less acceptable for women, such as uncontrolled behavior, lessened inhibitions and weight gain, while these are more acceptable for men. It also seems that popular images associated with cigarettes have a similarly masculine undertone, as the primary face of the tobacco industry, the "Marlboro Man" embodies popular American manhood like few other icons.
While no one has succeeded in proving the existence of a true addictive personality, many experts now believe that the predisposition to addiction is more accurately a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Certainly, as with all issues of psychology and behavior, the distinct combinations of genetics and inheritance must be countered with an acknowledgment of environmental factors, and the biology of addiction is no exception.
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