Addiction as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Addiction as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Table of Contents

What is a Neurodevelopmental Disorder?

Studies have shown a link between neurodevelopmental disorders and the cause of addiction. Understanding addiction as a disorder opens the door to new treatments and prevention methods by finding out what exactly causes someone to be prone to addiction and/or neurodevelopmental disorders. The answer isn’t an easy one because of the complexity of the condition. So let’s start at the beginning.

A neurodevelopmental disorder is a type of brain damage, caused by several varying factors, which results in underdeveloped regions of the brain and central nervous system. This disorder can affect the areas of the brain that control, emotion, reason, language, and memory. Most neurodevelopmental disorders change multiple regions of the brain. Often the symptoms are due to many of these changes which makes them hard to treat. Neurological disorder is a broad term for many conditions, some of which we’ve listed below.

List of Neurodevelopment Disorders

Learning disabilities

Cerebral palsy




Language disabilities

Intellectual disability


Tourette's syndrome

Low emotional intelligence

Poor motor functions

Chronic aggression

The science for neurodevelopmental disorders are ever adapting. We couldn’t possibly cover the complexities of each disorder, so we’ve narrowed it down to the main three.

Autism as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

The autism spectrum is recognized as a neurological disorder due to its impact on social, cognitive, and higher brain functions. Please remember that not every neuro-developmental disorder is the result of autism and that mental illness and autism are different as well. Autism Spectrum Disorder begins at birth and can often affect speech, and other cognitive functions. It is often treated with behavioral therapy and someone with autism may be especially sensitive to be peer pressured into drinking.

Tourette’s as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Tourette’s is included in neurodevelopmental disorders due to the effect on speech, movement, and logic. Like most neuro-disorders, Tourette’s symptoms appear around age 2-6. There’s no cure for Tourette’s but there are treatments and psychological help for addressing Tourette’s based tics. The exact cause of Tourette’s is unknown, but it’s believed to be mostly genetic or a combination of varying factors.

ADHD as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

ADHD qualifies as a neurological disorder because of the effect it has on impulse control, mood, and memory. ADHD is the single most common form of neurodevelopmental disorder in the world. It’s estimated that over 11% of adolescents have ADHD. Although it’s more common than Autism Spectrum Disorder or Tourette’s, ADHD can be just hard to manage in extreme cases.

Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder or ARND is a broad term for any brain damage caused by alcohol. Alternatively, alcohol-related birth defects or ARBD is the broad term for physical differences caused by alcohol. Either condition is caused by drinking while pregnant. 40,000 children are born per year with fetal alcohol syndrome, an offshoot of ARND. It’s noted that any alcohol, including casual or social drinking, consumed while pregnant can potentially cause ARND, ARBD, etc

Drinking while pregnant has a profound effect on an embryo. Alcohol is a teratogen. A teratogen is a chemical that negatively mutates an embryo and causes structural damage to the DNA. Teratogens stunt brain growth which in turn causes any number of neurodevelopmental disorders. Other teratogens include tobacco, lead, cocaine, and more.

The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder are permanent. And based on genetics some babies may be more prone to developing ARND than others, which could explain why some women drink during multiple pregnancies but only have one child affected by ARND.

Alcohol can also severely impact the central nervous system or CNS. These damages impact motor skills, language, and general physical movement. Drinking while pregnant also stunts the growth of the child.

Understanding Addiction as a Developmental Disorder

Someone once said we’re the products of our environment – much to the chagrin of Margret Mead. The environmental factor is a key player in developmental disorders. Adolescence is a delicate time for brain development. These years define how the brain conveys emotion, language, loss, and overall shapes lifelong personality. Any disruption to this delicate period by trauma, malnutrition, excess stress hormones, and more can permanently stunt the brain growth. This means that addiction could be categorized as a developmental disorder due to its impact on mood, cognitive function, memory, and other factors.

Dopamine and Serotonin

Studies have also shown that those prone to addiction often have decreased production of “happy” chemicals like dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals occur naturally but if someone has a deficiency of them, then a surge of the chemical from drugs or alcohol provides an increased chance of addiction. Furthermore, the cycle of addiction and child-rearing is linked. People without substance use disorders get a healthy amount of happy hormones when raising a child. However, the presence of a substance use disorder means a larger amount of happy hormones are needed, and the boost from child rearing is far less than the surge drugs and alcohol provide. This results in decreased quality of care and familial stability in a child’s adolescent years which in turn increases the chance of a child developing a substance use disorder later in life.

Childhood Challenges

Additionally, the immediate effects of a rough childhood are seen in the developing brain. Studies have shown that the neural system responds by changing the child’s brain structure. These changes disrupt hormone and chemical regulators in the brain resulting in a significantly increased chance of addiction behavior. In the case of alcoholism, studies show a generational connection and predisposition to alcohol.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Lastly, neurodevelopmental disorders combined with poor home-life can cause a separate but coinciding degree of major depression or other prominent mental illness. This general combination of events is what makes discovering the cause and treatment for neuro-disorders all the more difficult. Understand that addiction, especially addiction started in adolescence, is rarely, if ever, in the control of the addicted.

Treating Addiction as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a chronic condition, meaning they currently have no cure. However, there are several treatments to help control or subdue the side effects, putting the condition into remission. Alternatively, there’s also therapy to help gain different perspectives or coping strategies. It will depend on the situation as to which one may work best.


Therapy is great for adolescents or anyone that has a hard time communicating. Therapy can help fortify emotional intelligence, teach trust, and help with the more social aspects of a disorder. Additionally, seeing the same care provider each visit can increase successful recovery.


There’s medicine to help with most drug cravings and the medicine is often tailored to a specific drug. This method works best for those that don’t have constant exposure to emotional triggers or have a strong support system. Medication is only one part of treatment and does not cure addiction. Medication can address withdrawal symptoms and increase the likelihood of a successful recovery.

Addiction as a neurodevelopmental disorder is still being studied. There’s certainly no doubt as to the connection between addiction and neuro-disorders. But figuring out the causes of disorders like autism, Tourette’s, etc is still proving tricky. Remember that addiction is a tough journey for everyone and treatment goes further than judgment.

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