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Addiction and neural ageing
Addiction and neural ageing

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1 Issues in brain and behaviour

1.1 Popular conceptions about addiction and neural ageing

First of all, consider the following statements found in popular information media:

  • Some addictions are in the mind, like that to shopping, gambling or the internet, whereas others are in the body, like an addiction to heroin, alcohol or food.

  • Once you have tried cannabis, you are hooked for life. The craving for cannabis will never go away.

  • The thinking patterns of an addicted brain can never be changed.

  • Smoking is not all bad news – it improves your memory and stops you going senile.

  • The brains of elderly people work more slowly than those of young people.

  • Exercise and diet are key to preventing Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

  • In the mountains of southern Russia, people regularly live to 120 because they eat pure honey and breath unpolluted air.

Such statements illustrate several common points. Firstly, people have opinions on factors that affect addiction and neural ageing that either do, or do not, have some basis in hard factual evidence. They are prepared to make claims based on anecdotes, for example, that cannabis is, or is not, addictive and that smoking helps to protect against Alzheimer's disease. Second, some things are said to be based on events in the body (e.g. heroin addiction) but others are thought not to be (e.g. a shopping addiction). Such thinking separates behavioural and psychological states from brain states. Lastly, environmental factors (shopping and the internet; honey and clean air) are thought to operate independently of genetic or social factors.

These media sound bites are effective and persuasive but they are bland statements that mask the complexity of the topics. Indeed, since we all engage in potentially addictive behaviours and we all age, how true are these statements? Moreover, to what extent are such statements supported by unequivocal scientific data? We start to explore, at an advanced level of enquiry, some of these issues in this course.