Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

Why study drug use and addiction?

Use and misuse of alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs, and misuse of prescription drugs cost Americans more than $700 billion a year in increased health care costs, crime, and lost productivity.1,2,3 Every year, illicit and prescription drug overdoses cause tens of thousands of deaths (nearly 70,000 in 2018), alcohol contributes to the death of more than 90,000 Americans, while tobacco is linked to an estimated 480,000 deaths per year.4,5 (Hereafter, unless otherwise specified, drugs refers to all of these substances.)

People of all ages suffer the harmful consequences of drug use and addiction:

  • Teens who use drugs may act out and may do poorly in school or drop out.6 Using drugs when the brain is still developing may cause lasting brain changes and put the user at increased risk of dependence.7
  • Adults who use drugs can have problems thinking clearly, remembering, and paying attention. They may develop poor social behaviors as a result of their drug use, and their work performance and personal relationships suffer.
  • Parents' drug use can mean chaotic, stress-filled homes, as well as child abuse and neglect.8 Such conditions harm the well-being and development of children in the home and may set the stage for drug use in the next generation.9
  • Babies exposed to drugs in the womb may be born premature and underweight. This exposure can slow the child's ability to learn and affect behavior later in life.10 They may also become dependent on opioids or other drugs used by the mother during pregnancy, a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

How does science provide solutions for drug use and addiction?

Scientists study the effects drugs have on the brain and behavior. They use this information to develop programs for preventing drug use and for helping people recover from addiction. Further research helps transfer these ideas into practice in the community.

The consequences of drug use are vast and varied and affect people of all ages.