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Addiction to drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamine, and opiates, is a serious, worldwide social and health problem. Currently, 1 in every 13 adults in the United States abuses alcohol or other drugs, costing society about $180 billion a year. Addiction is a disease of the brain in which repeated drug use in susceptible individuals results in changes in brain biology and in the behaviors that characterize addiction, such as tolerance to a drug’s effects, dependence on the drug, withdrawal symptoms, and drug craving. Unfortunately, few effective medications are currently available to treat this disease. In the past decade, tremendous effort has been invested in developing medications for various other diseases, such as cancer, that alter the activity of intracellular signaling pathways. It is possible that the same approach could be used to develop medication to treat addiction. Here, we review recent studies that elucidate intracellular signaling cascades within the brain that are altered by exposure to alcohol or cocaine and that contribute to, or delay, the development of addiction. Understanding the molecular processes that underlie phenotypes associated with drug and alcohol abuse is likely to open new therapeutic avenues.
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