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Incentive-sensitization theory of addiction
Robinson and Berridge have described a theory of addiction based on preconscious sensitization of neural systems.
Compulsive seeking of drugs comes from a progressive and persistent hypersensitization of particular neural systems.
This neural sensitization describes increasing ability of a drug to stimulate particular neurobehavioral systems. Even intermittent use of drugs leads to this sensitization.
Sensitization increases the effect of the same quantity of a drug. Thus the person gets steadily increasing pleasure each time they use it.
This is not just a pharmacological effect. Learning systems and conditioning are important and act to amplify results.
The neural systems involved lead to a motivational sequence of incentive salience or, more simply, 'wanting.'
This is not 'liking' or pleasure, which is an outcome, but a driver of the addictive action, although it may have pleasurable associations, perhaps of anticipated pleasure.
The 'wanting' and 'liking' described here are preconscious processes that leads to conscious desire and pleasure.
Repetition of the addictive behavior, typically taking drugs, leads to increased sensitization. Addicts thus want the drugs more even if they know the harmful effects and would like to stop.
The preconscious neural wanting becomes conscious desire. This translation process can lead to us seeking something without really knowing why.
Robinson, T.E. and Berridge, K.C. (1993). The neural basis of drug craving: An incentive-sensitization theory of addiction. Brain Research, 18, 247-291.
Berridge, K.C. and Robinson, T.E. (1995). The mind of an addicted brain: neural sensitization of wanting versus liking, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4, 71–76.