Treating Addiction as a Neurological Disease: Dr. Nicole Labor, Summa Healthcare

Dr. Nicole Labor, Addiction Medicine Specialist at Summa Healthcare in Akron, Ohio, once struggled with a heroin addiction that pushed her to pursue a career in addiction treatment. “At the end of school you choose the field you hate the least… [Addiction Medicine] is a field that requires you to be honest and set boundaries. Since those were things I was working on in my own recovery, I thought it would be good for me,” says Dr. Labor.

Dr. Labor’s biggest concern with the current opioid epidemic is its focus on a single drug. She notes how 10 or 15 years ago, there was a similar focus on the cocaine epidemic. She explains the issue of focusing solely on opioids, rather than on all addictive substances. “Addiction is the same across the board. The treatment is essentially the same, with small variations. So by fixating specifically on opioids, we are taking away the idea that addiction is a neurological disease,” says Dr. Labor.

She explains the danger of brushing off other addictive substances that aren’t opioids. “Using any substance will trigger a relapse…Once the change occurs in the brain, all substances need to be avoided. Addiction has very little to do with the actual substance,” says Dr. Labor.

She continues by explaining the addictive risk of recreational substances like alcohol and marijuana, which are often used as coping mechanisms. “Before you use alcohol or marijuana, really evaluate if you have appropriate coping skills. Once you start using chemicals as your coping skill, it’s very hard for the brain to recall other coping skills,” says Dr. Labor.

Greg asks Dr. Labor to expand on her recent presentation discussing the idea of an addiction gene. She says some people may have a gene like this and some people may not. She also notes that if someone does have the gene, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will struggle with addiction. “We have multiple addiction genes with multiple triggers. Most people and families have an addiction gene, activated by a specific amount of substance use,” says Dr. Labor.

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