By Kathryn Cunningham and Eliza Quigley

Why does one person use drugs and become addicted while another doesn't? Why do addicts have trouble stopping drug use and staying clean and sober?

The answers to these questions are lodged in the brain. The brain sets the stage for an individual's sensitivity to the euphoric first effects of an abused drug and then it adapts with repeated exposure to that drug.

The chronic, relapsing nature of addiction is caused by the brain changes that occur during this disease process.

The challenge of science and medicine - and a focus for the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston - is to identify these brain changes and use this information to create treatment options to enhance recovery and abstinence.

While addiction research soars ahead, public awareness of this disease remains mired in misperceptions of the past century.

The facts are that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain and that treatment can overcome it.

Just as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are chronic, relapsing disorders with multiple treatment options, so too is substance abuse and addiction.

We must put aside sanctimonious judgment and condemnation of the addict as weak and lacking moral fiber and, instead, view him or her as a sufferer of a chronic brain disease. We must seek to provide the treatment and support mechanisms the addict needs for recovery.

If a patient is treated for diabetes with only limited success, we do not turn them away or blame them for backsliding; we keep trying other options.

With the growing appreciation of the science of addiction research, our medicine chest of treatment options will grow and provide ever greater opportunities for successful recovery.

As part of its effort to expand knowledge and understanding of addiction, the Center for Addiction Research is hosting an important forum for increasing public knowledge about addiction and alcoholism and will sponsor a viewing of the groundbreaking HBO documentary "Addiction" in April.

An important step to begin effective prevention and treatment is to spread our growing understanding of this devastating disease throughout our educational system - from grammar school to medical school and beyond.

The ultimate benefit of such an understanding is to spare society the unnecessary destruction of many lives - often young lives - as well as save untold taxpayer dollars by avoiding the reduced productivity, domestic violence, crime and rising health care and prison incarceration costs that accompany our failure to address issues surrounding substance abuse and addiction.

Kathryn A. Cunningham directs the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Eliza K. Quigley is its director of operations and planning.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.