The Development of Addiction

Addiction is a brain disease that is more likely to affect individuals exposed to toxic stress during vulnerable periods of their youth. Periods of greatest vulnerability include our earliest years and adolescence. When the brain's reward system does not function properly, people are at increased risk of moving from use to abuse of substances and behaviours.

Early Origins of Vulnerability

Experiences that occur early in childhood, even as far back as the pre- and post-natal periods, can also alter brain architecture in ways that may prime an individual to become vulnerable to addiction. For example, the quality of the infant-caregiver interaction and exposure to toxic stress both have direct effects on the brain systems responsible for regulating emotions and coping with stress. In other words, children who are exposed to toxic stress may grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with stress, anxiety, and mood. This can lead individuals to attempt self-medication in an effort to alleviate these effects.


Vulnerable Ages

Becoming addicted is typically a gradual process and involves many distinct but interdependent factors, including the timing of various experiences.

Research clearly shows that most adults with addictions first developed these problems during adolescence or young adulthood. This finding makes sense from a developmental perspective, since teenagers have greater access to alcohol, drugs, and other potentially addictive experiences as they gain more independence from their parents. From a biological perspective, adolescence is a time in which the parts of the brain responsible for impulsivity, decision-making, and executive control are undergoing considerable change and are not yet fully mature. Exposure to experiences that can alter brain architecture in these same areas may increase the likelihood of developing an addiction.


ADHD Increases Risk

Research has now shown that children with poor impulse control, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may also be at risk for addiction. These children may engage in risky behaviours at earlier ages and more frequently than other children. From a prevention perspective, understanding the factors that contribute to developing an addiction is crucial so that we can monitor and mitigate risk appropriately.