Joseph R. Volpicelli, MD, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and a Senior Scientist at the Penn Center for Studies of Addiction. Tracy Steen, PhD, is Clinical Director at the Charles O'Brien Center for Addiction Treatment, University of Pennysylvania.
How would you define addiction?
TS: I define addiction in terms of the criteria used in the DSM-IV-TR for substance dependence. The criteria include tolerance, withdrawal,
drinking more than intended, drinking in spite of known physical or psychological consequences, and spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking. Disruption to one’s personal or professional life is another characteristic of addiction, as are repeated unsuccessful efforts to cut down or “control” drinking. I talk with patients about addiction as a brain disease. Alcoholism is a disease that affects the brain’s natural reward pathways and causes them to become disrupted over time. It is important that both patients and healthcare professionals understand this concept.
JV: While the DSM-IV-TR criteria are helpful in presenting the symptoms of addiction, from my perspective the
cardinal feature of addiction is impaired control over the frequency and quantity of alcohol or drug use. This impaired control often leads to serious complications such as difficulty with social relationships, work difficulties, legal problems, emotional disorders, and physical complications. The DSM-IV-TR uses the term dependence to define alcohol and drug addiction, but I believe this term is misleading. Dependence can refer to the physiological adaptation that some people experience when they use a drug over time. This can refer to tolerance, when the drug has less effect over time or withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped or used less frequently. While physiological adaptation can occur when people are addicted to a drug, it is not a necessary or sufficient condition of addiction, since one can have physiological adaptation to medications such as betablockers but not be addicted to them. Similarly, one can be addicted to alcohol or other drugs and not show any physiological adaptation. From my perspective, addiction essentially comes down to the fact that drug use begets more drug use.
Are there unique characteristics that differentiate alcohol addiction or dependence from other forms of addiction?TS: There are more similarities than differences between alcohol dependency and the other addictive disorders. We see genetic predispositions to alcohol as well as other addictive substances, and there is overlap in the brain structures involved. Tolerance, withdrawal, loss of control, drinking or using in spite of serious interpersonal, health, or professional consequences…all of the criteria I mentioned earlier are hallmarks of addiction to alcohol, stimulants, opiates, or other addictive substances. But the fact that alcohol is legal and ubiquitous certainly makes a difference in assessment and treatment. Because moderate drinking is so acceptable in society, alcoholics are reluctant to accept total abstinence as a treatment goal. Even family members of alcoholics may encourage an (ill-fated) return to “normal” drinking after a brief period of abstinence. And because heavy drinking is the norm in certain settings—like college, for example—it may take longer for people to identify a problem.
JV: All addictions have in common the characteristic that drug use begets more drug use. People will continue to use these substances despite adverse consequences. Alcohol is somewhat unique in terms of its biochemistry. Alcohol is sort of a “dirty drug” because it affects a variety of neurotransmitter systems. For example, alcohol stimulates the opioid system and produces a pleasant, opiatelike “high.” People, particularly those with a strong family history of alcohol addiction, will drink alcohol because it stimulates a release of endogenous opioids, which in turn stimulates the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens,
the so-called pleasure center of the brain. Medications, such as naltrexone, that block opioid receptors also block the high that people experience when they drink or use opiates. Naltrexone also blocks the addictive cycle in which one drink sets the occasion for the next drink.
Alcohol also has effects on other neurotransmitters such as the GABA system. Alcohol enhances the GABA system and this effect gives alcohol its sedative properties. With chronic use of alcohol, there is an adaptation so that there is an increase in the excitatory neurotransmitter system. Medications such as acamprosate (Camprel) block the excitatory neurotransmitter system
and thus help balance the inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters and reduce the craving for drinking. Research suggests other important effects of alcohol on a variety of neurotransmitter systems. This has led to new areas of research to find effective treatments.
How important is it to change the perception that alcoholism is purely a psychological condition?TS: The perception of alcoholism as a character weakness rather than a disease contributes to the stigma associated with it. And this stigma creates very real barriers to treatment. Individuals are less likely to seek professional help for something they think they should be able to manage using willpower alone. In addition, family members and the community at large are less likely to be supportive of individuals struggling with a stigmatized disease. Community resources for treating addiction are inadequate—especially for adolescents. It’s not uncommon to find communities that have no options for treating adolescents with addictive disorders, and insurance plans that provide inadequate coverage for addiction treatment.
Increasing educational efforts to help people understand the biological basis for the disease concept is our best bet for reducing the stigma associated
with the disease and increasing
empathy for individuals with addictive
disorders. When patients and their family
members understand addiction as a
brain disease, they tend to make better
decisions. When patients understand,
for example, the biological basis of cueinduced
or stress-induced cravings, they
are more likely to take active steps to
avoid temptation and manage stress.
Understanding the disease concept
improves treatment outcome.
JV: It is important to stress the physical
component of addiction because
too often when we think of addiction
in psychological terms a morality judgment
is involved. Many people still
think that people who are addicted to
alcohol have a character defect or lack will power. Clearly, there are biochemical changes in the brain which are brought on by drinking alcohol that lead to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead to impaired control over its use.
Furthermore, it is likely that genetic
factors have a strong influence. Some
people can drink one or two drinks of
alcohol and not experience a desire to
keep drinking. However, my patients
invariably tell me that after they have
a couple of drinks the desire to have
the third and fourth drink is even higher than the desire to have the first drink.
When I see that kind of pattern—even though the person doesn’t exhibit all the other classic symptoms of alcohol addiction—
it tells me that the person has a
problem and needs further evaluation
Does that stigma and resistance to change include healthcare professionals?TS: Definitely. Many medical schools
offer their students only a few hours of instruction on this topic, and this results in an inadequate supply of physicians well-trained to deal with the addictions they may encounter in their practice.
Penn’s medical school is a notable
exception—medical students at Penn
receive over 18 hours of instruction
in an addiction course, but this is the
exception to the rule. Currently, addiction
training is still very specialized, and
it is not uncommon to find healthcare
professionals who view alcoholism as a willpower failure or character flaw.
JV: It has been a difficult transition to
move beyond a moral failing model of
addiction to a chronic disease model
of addiction for healthcare professionals.
I have been training primary care
residents for several years now and I
have seen where residents often view
addiction as a moral failing. The good news, however, is that this attitude is changing. Last week, a medical resident called and ask my advice on how to carry out an outpatient alcohol detoxification. This came from someone who was part of a program that had thousands of patient visits without one visit being coded for an alcohol use disorder.
Clearly, people who are involved with
addiction research agree that alcohol
addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder not unlike most medical disorders. This awareness needs to extend beyond the specialists in addiction and filter out to the general medical community.
What are the hallmarks of an effective approach to treatment and management?TS: First there has to be engagement and a strong therapeutic alliance. In an outpatient setting it’s a particular challenge to encourage ambivalent patients to engage in a treatment program that often requires them to make difficult lifestyle changes. Clinicians must walk a fine line as they confront individuals about the seriousness of their problems while still expressing empathy and hope.
Another hallmark of effective treatment
would be the availability of psychiatric
services. Anxiety, depression, and
other mental disorders often co-exist
with alcohol addiction, and it is important to untangle and treat these co-existing concerns. An effective treatment program is one that offers patients access to the pharmacological agents available for treating alcoholism: Antabuse, Acamprosate, Naltrexone, and Vivitrol.
I also think it’s critical to involve the
patient’s family early on in treatment. It
is important to do this not only to get
the whole story regarding the patient’s
addiction, but also to educate the family
members. They need to resolve any
misconceptions about addiction and
then learn how they can be supportive
throughout the patient’s treatment and
beyond. Addiction treatment is different
from traditional psychotherapy in that
it’s much more prescriptive. There are
right things to do and wrong things to
do. There are things that family members can do to be helpful, and there are things that well-meaning family members can do that actually compromise the recovery process.
JV: I often tell my students that the
most important goal in treatment is
to make sure the patient returns. It is
important that the patient feels understood
and respected. I understand the
time pressure that many physicians feel
in private practice, but we cannot ignore
the importance of spending the time
to talk with patients. This is an area
where the nursing staff can help. I have
developed a psychosocial approach that
doctors and nurses can use called the
BRENDA approach. It describes how the
medical staff can approach and counsel
patients who have addictions and then
combine that with medications to help
people stay motivated for treatment. The
BRENDA approach encourages patients
to look at the consequences of their
drinking instead of focusing solely on
why they drink. It talks about what they can do to control or stop their drinking.
It’s a very matter-of-fact, non-judgmental,
supportive approach. I’ve found that
when you take that approach, people
tend to stay in treatment.
How important is it to combine
medication with counseling and
JV: I think it is very important that we
combine medication with psychosocial support in alcohol addiction treatment.
The research clearly shows that medications
improve treatment outcomes,
but I think medications alone are not
enough. While medications may help
the patient refrain from drinking, over
time the motivation to stay in treatment can wane. Feeling improved, patients without psychosocial support may stop taking medications or fail to replace the “high” associated with drinking with other pleasurable activities. This can lead to relapse. However, with psychosocial support, patients can learn to use all their time and energy on healthy and productive activities. In general, I like to offer patients weekly visits with me or a nurse until they are stable in their recovery.
TS: : I think counseling or support via self-help groups like AA is critical. At the O’Brien Center for Addiction Treatment here at Penn, we recommend both pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatment. Our patients engage in some combination of individual therapy, group therapy, and family or couples therapy along with any pharmacological treatment. In order to maintain their sobriety, it is essential that patients learn strategies for coping with cravings, managing stress, and identifying and avoiding triggers. I believe that the social support obtained in group therapy or self-help groups like AA helps patients maintain their resolve when confronted with common challenges in recovery—challenges such as feelings of resentment, boredom, or loneliness; unsupportive family members; missing alcohol as a reliable short-cut to relaxation, etc.
What are the biggest obstacles
to successful treatment?
TS: Stress is a big obstacle; life
stressors tend to predict relapses.
Interestingly, celebration can also trigger
relapse. It is not uncommon for
people to relapse just after a major
milestone—like attending 90 AA meetings
in 90 days. The accomplishment
lulls them into thinking that perhaps
they can control their drinking after all. During times of celebration, people often report that they want to continue the “buzz,” and they fall back on drinking to do this.
Cue-induced cravings (or triggers)
are another cause of relapse. Alcohol
becomes associated with particular
people, certain settings, and even time of day or mood. It’s very hard to unlearn these triggers, and alcohol itself is omnipresent in our society.
Another obstacle is the societal
stigma against alcoholism, which
manifests itself in many ways, including
disparities in insurance coverage
of addiction treatment compared to
other diseases. The resulting lack of
resources, in addition to the lack of
awareness and understanding, the stigmatization,
the criminalization—all are
obstacles to treatment. And of course
a patient’s personal burden of denial
or shame regarding his or her addiction can be a major obstacle in treatment and recovery.
JV: Currently, only about 10% of
people who have an alcohol use disorder
receive any treatment, and most
of those receive treatment in self-help
groups like AA. It is disheartening
to see how few patients are taking
advantage of the new pharmacologic
advances in treatment, such as acamprosate
and naltrexone (both oral and
sustained release). So one important
obstacle to effective treatment is the
failure of healthcare professionals to
assess for alcohol addiction and offer
treatment options. We need to inform
physicians and patients about the
recent medical advances in addiction
treatment. If we can raise awareness
of this, then I think a lot more people
would start and stay in treatment.
A second major obstacle to successful
treatment is finding a source to
pay for treatment. Too often, motivated
patients who desire treatment are simply
not able to afford medication or psychosocial
support because their insurance
will not cover the expense. Since
research shows that addiction treatment
saves money in the long run, it is unfortunate
that costs should continue to be
a major barrier.
Finally, perhaps the biggest obstacle
to effective treatment is the general
perception that addiction is a moral
failing. All too often patients feel
embarrassed to seek treatment and
even when they do seek treatment,
they encounter an appalling lack of
understanding from employers, family,
and in some cases healthcare
professionals. Perhaps a publication
such as this can move us toward
understanding addictions in a more
non-judgmental way. The good news is
that the prejudice toward addictions is
beginning to erode and people are better
educated toward understanding the
cardinal features of addiction and its