The neurobiology of addictive disorders

Clin Neuropharmacol. Sep-Oct 2009;32(5):269-76. doi: 10.1097/wnf.0b013e3181a9163c.


Addiction is increasingly understood as a neurobiological illness where repetitive substance abuse corrupts the normal circuitry of rewarding and adaptive behaviors causing drug-induced neuroplastic changes. The addictive process can be examined by looking at the biological basis of substance initiation to the progression of substance abuse to dependence to the enduring risk of relapse. Critical neurotransmitters and neurocircuits underlie the pathological changes at each of these stages. Enhanced dopamine transmission in the nucleus accumbens is part of the common pathway for the positively rewarding aspects of drugs of abuse and for initiation of the addictive process. F-Aminobutyric acid,opioid peptides, serotonin, acetylcholine, the endocannabinoids, and glutamate systems also play a role in the initial addictive process. Dopamine also plays a key role in conditioned responses to drugs of abuse, and addiction is now recognized as a disease of pathological learning and memory. In the path from substance abuse to addiction, the neurochemistry shifts from a dopamine-based behavioral system to a predominantly glutamate-based one marked by dysregulated glutamate transmission from the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens in relation to drug versus biologically oriented stimuli. This is a core part of the executive dysfunction now understood as one of the hallmark features of addiction that also includes impaired decision making and impulse dysregulation.Understanding the neurobiology of the addictive process allows for a theoretical psychopharmacological approach to treating addictive disorders,one that takes into account biological interventions aimed at particular stages of the illness.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism*
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / metabolism
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Reward
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology


  • Dopamine