Addiction not a character flaw issue: expert


Dr Phil Townshend Clinical Psychologist DARA

Addictions may be described as “ecological or environmental traps” resulting from the human brain’s reaction to products or activities, rather than a disease of individuals, says an addiction expert.

Drug, alcohol, gambling and most other addictions hijack the dopamine or pleasure pathway of the brain, resulting in reward, pleasure or persistence, says Dr Phil Townshend, Clinical Psychologist, Treatment Director at DARA Thailand, an international drug and alcohol addiction clinic, and former Head of Gamblers Help Services at the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Melbourne.

This ubiquitous neurobiology presumably had an adaptive function in human evolutionary history, however our neurobiology has not yet adapted to rapid, human-induced environmental changes, he says.

Dr Townshend says addiction may be an ecological trap in an approach which provides a non-judgmental view of addiction, highlights addiction as a public health issue requiring change at an environmental and public level, and may also lead to more successful treatment options.

In a new paper on addiction as an evolutionary trap, co-authored with problem gambling and addiction dlinician Mathew McMillan from New Zealand, Dr Townshend argues, “The predominant community view is that addiction is a moral issue caused by character flaws in an individual.

“However, researchers are pointing to environmental stimuli which rapidly alter an ecological situation, and where the speed of environmental change does not match the speed with which humans can adapt genetically, or behaviourally, to that change.

“In essence, addiction is an ecological trap that is an over-expression of behaviours, reinforced by activation of the reward system, in an environment of relatively unrestricted availability of chemicals and behaviours that trigger or activate this, and related, neurobiological pathways,” says Dr Townshend.

In his paper, Dr Townshend refers to Human Induced Rapid Environmental Change, which results in environments in which humans and other animals are unable to accurately assess their choices due to environmental changes that have changed the fitness value of these choices. This causes the organism to become trapped in detrimental, or non-adaptive choices, as in addiction.

Offshore rehabilitation centres offer a fourth area of focus, in addition to holistic and evidence-based treatments, by removing an individual from their familiar environment at home, he says.

“Understanding and removing the environmental trap, together with standard treatment options, is likely to lead to more successful outcomes, than current practice,” Dr Townshend says.

“Addiction is currently defined as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation memory and related mental processes, and modern treatments, such as counseling, behavioural therapy and psychological education alone, are limited in an ecological trap scenario.

“If we can help people change their personal environment, reduce access to their addictive agent, or behaviour, and make ecological intervention an equal priority to other therapeutic options, we may see heightened success with treatment programs.”

Although the mechanism of addiction is a feature of human neurobiology, just as with other animal species, individual characteristics such as personality, genetics, psychological state and chance, probably explain individual vulnerability to addiction and entrapment, says Dr Townshend.

“In situations where humans have scarce resources, and where a diverse set of behaviours is required to survive, the opportunities for compulsive, or addictive behaviours, would be limited,”1 Dr Townshend says.

“In this sense, public health interventions that focus on advertising, price or availability, exposure and access can be viewed as re-creating some of the natural limits that humans traditionally faced, in the pre-HIREC environment.

“Viewing addiction as an ecological trap combines the principals of individual clinical interventions with population level, public health interventions, which, in combination, help individuals to change their personal environment and to have the necessary support at a larger population level.

“Intervening at a public health level, by assisting people with addictions to change their personal ecology, and limiting their exposure to addictive substances or activities, may be the most effective way to curb spiraling addiction rates across all areas of addiction.”

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