Original Paper


, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 65-77

First online:

The Paradox of Addiction Neuroscience

  • Daniel Z. BuchmanAffiliated withNational Core for Neuroethics, University of British Columbia
  • , Judy IllesAffiliated withNational Core for Neuroethics, Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine, Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics, University of British Columbia
  • , Peter B. ReinerAffiliated withNational Core for Neuroethics, Department of Psychiatry and Brain Research Centre, University of British Columbia Email author 

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Neuroscience has substantially advanced the understanding of how changes in brain biochemistry contribute to mechanisms of tolerance and physical dependence via exposure to addictive drugs. Many scientists and mental health advocates scaffold this emerging knowledge by adding the imprimatur of disease, arguing that conceptualizing addiction as a “brain disease” will reduce stigma amongst the folk. Promoting a brain disease concept is grounded in beneficent and utilitarian thinking: the language makes room for individuals living with addiction to receive the same level of compassion and access to healthcare services as individuals living with other medical diseases, and promotes enlightened social and legal policies. However such claims may yield unintended consequences by fostering discrimination commonly associated with pathology. Specifically, the language of neuroscience used to describe addiction may reduce attitudes such as blame and responsibility while inadvertently identifying addicted persons as neurobiological others. In this paper, we examine the merits and limitations of adopting the language of neuroscience to describe addiction. We argue that the reframing of addiction in the language of neuroscience provides benefits such as the creation of empowered biosocial communities, but also creates a new set of risks, as descriptive neuroscience concepts are inseparable from historical attitudes and intuitions towards addiction and addicted persons. In particular, placing emphasis on the diseased brain may foster unintended harm by paradoxically increasing social distance towards the vulnerable group the term is intended to benefit.


Addiction Neuroethics Brain disease Stigma