National Geographic

Today’s war on drugs isn’t fought by first ladies or celebrity advocates. Armed with MRI machines, electromagnetic pulses and experimental drugs, scientists are on the battle’s front lines.

In the cover story of September’s National Geographic, Fran Smith explores the different fronts of a war being fought in laboratories and universities all over the world. Armed with the tools of science and with the help of people who struggle with addictions to substances and self-destructive behavior, researchers are working to unravel the mysteries of the addicted brain.

The article is packed with descriptions of cutting-edge treatments such as transcranial magnetic stimulation. TMS sends electromagnetic pulses to a patient’s prefrontal cortex. Researchers think this might reboot the addicted brain and stop cravings in their tracks. Medication, mindfulness and other potential therapies make appearances, too.

New advances in neuroscience are leading the way. Although there’s much more to learn, scientists now understand how addiction hijacks the brain’s reward system, causing people to seek out drugs or pursue activities such as gambling, no matter what the cost. Using advanced imaging and computing, they have mapped chemical pathways and physical reactions that probably fuel addictive behavior.

Smith explains those advances, talking with leading researchers and breaking down how the brain regulates pleasure and desire. And while her message isn’t exactly cheery — she’s honest about how even the most advanced science hasn’t yet solved the puzzle — it’s hopeful, too.

No, there’s no cure for addiction. But Smith’s piece suggests that perhaps one day, shame can be replaced by science.

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