Addiction: Biological Approach

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Biological Approach to Addiction


  • Addicts inherit genetic predisposition to developing an addiction. 
  • Multiple genes involved - particularly A1 variant of DRD2 gene (involved in regulation of dopamine levels). This increases people's sensitivity to action of dopamine.
  • SLC6A3-9 gene (removes dopamine from the synapse) involved in addiction.


  • Meso-limbic dopamine system - to do with memory, reward and motivational processes - involved with maintaining an addictive behaviour.
  • Normal activity = cells in meso-limbic dopamine system release small amounts of dopamine into the synapse. 
  • Addictive substances and behaviours increases dopamine levels in synapse.
  • Addicts continue addictive behaviour because in order to experience highs from the addiction, they need to maintain high levels of dopamine (tolerance) 
  • Falling levels of dopamine = withdrawal symptoms
  • People more susceptible to addictions may have inherited a more sensitive meso-limbic dopamine system.


  • Substances (e.g nicotine) activate dopamine reward pathway and brain adapts to be in balance when substance is present (neuroadaptation) 
  • When substance discontinued, neuroadaptation no longer needed = withdrawal symptoms (unpleasant, immediately relieved by using substance)

Evaluation of the Biological Approach

  • Compared with other approaches the biological model does not explain initiation as well as the behavioural and/or cognitive approach
  • Has led to effective treatments e.g Nicotine Replacement Therapy for smoking
  • Absolves addicts of responsibility - if the causes of addiction are due to genes or dopamine levels, this means the addict is releived of responsibility for the addiction so treatment is less likely to


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