Ozempic is the Latest Vain Pursuit of a Scientific Solution to AddictionRoundup
tags: history of science, history of technology, Addiction, medical history, Obesity
Simon Torracinta is a lecturer in history of science at Harvard University and contributing editor to the Boston Review.
Will 2023 be the year that the battle against addiction is finally won? The key, it seems, may be the new diabetes drug, Ozempic. While doctors and pharmaceutical companies hail it as a powerful new weight loss drug, early reports also suggest that GLP-1 analogue drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro may suppress a variety of other appetites, from smoking and alcohol to shopping and nail-biting.
GLP-1 analogues were developed to control diabetes by triggering insulin secretion from the pancreas. Some evidence suggests these drugs also affect the brain’s dopamine pathways, which appear so significant in rewarding our behavior that some neuroscientists have labeled it the “wanting” system. The hope is that GLP-1 analogues might target this wanting system directly, eliminating or reducing cravings — including those associated with addiction. Are we around the corner from a major advance in the science of desire?
Not so fast. The history of many failed attempts to generate a reliable biological treatment for thorny problems like addiction should caution us against anticipating another magic bullet. Explaining desire through simple biology fails to grasp the variety of motivations for drug-taking, and previous medical fixations on extinguishing “cravings” alone typically did more harm than good.
The search for a scientific solution to cure addiction dates back over 150 years. In the mid-19th century, the fast-developing science of neurophysiology believed that the source of all human motivations could be traced back to the brain. “All [man’s] desires and motives are experienced in and act upon this important apparatus,” the pioneering brain physician Thomas Laycock declared in 1860. Only “perfect knowledge” of this neurological system, Laycock added, would allow man “to direct and control the internal or vital forces, just as he directs and controls the physical or external forces.”
Inspired by these developments, many doctors became convinced that disorders like “opium poisoning,” “inebriety” and “morphinism” were linked by a common “disease of the will” that required a physiological solution. By the turn of the 20th century, the language of “addiction” had developed as a catchall term to describe this group of afflictions that had previously been considered separate conditions.