Background: According to the ‘brain disease model of addiction’, addiction is a chronic condition the symptoms of which reflect persistent changes in neural functioning produced by long-term drug use. Scholars have argued both for and against the validity and usefulness of this way of conceptualising addiction, which has been variously described as emancipatory and detrimental to addicted persons. In this paper we explore how people with addictions make sense of the brain disease concept and the extent to which they find it useful. Methods: We conducted 44 semi-structured interviews with persons in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction recruited through a variety of channels. Transcripts were analysed by combining a health identity approach with thematic analysis. Results: We describe participants’ understandings of how they became addicted and what role, if any, neurobiological conceptions play in their explanations. Our findings highlight the hopeful and sceptical viewpoints of addicted individuals on the value of addiction neuroscience ideas and neurotechnologies. Conclusions: These viewpoints shed some light on the diverse and divergent ways that people with addictions make sense of neurobiological ideas and technologies. It also describes when, and how, neurobiological explanations and the ‘brain disease’ model can be helpful to addicted persons. Some of the limitations of the brain disease model become apparent in the complex ways in which neurobiological explanations and labels are incorporated into lay understandings. In order to be more useful to addicted persons, neurobiological explanations should be provided as part of a more complex explanation of addiction and the brain than the BDMA offers, and should not be given a ‘disease’ label.
- brain disease model of addiction
- drug dependent persons
- public understandings of science
- qualitative research