, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 65–77 | Cite as

The Paradox of Addiction Neuroscience

  • Daniel Z. Buchman
  • Judy Illes
  • Peter B. ReinerEmail author
Original Paper


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 



We’d like to thank Grant Gillett for sharing his insights on this topic with us. Supported by CIHR CNE #85117.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel Z. Buchman
    • 1
  • Judy Illes
    • 2
  • Peter B. Reiner
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.National Core for NeuroethicsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.National Core for Neuroethics, Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine, Canada Research Chair in NeuroethicsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.National Core for Neuroethics, Department of Psychiatry and Brain Research CentreUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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