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By Professor Barry Everitt FRS, Professor David Nutt and Professor Trevor Robbins FRS

Advances in the understanding of addiction in terms of specific behavioural processes mediated by molecular changes in increasingly-well-defined underlying neural and neurochemical systems have led to several competing theories which urgently need resolution.

There have been astonishing advances in understanding about the neurobiological basis and nature of drug addiction in the last two decades, even by the standards of neuroscience research. Thus, we know the initial molecular sites of action, at identified receptors, of virtually all of the major drugs of abuse including cocaine, heroin and amphetamine, as well as legal drugs such as nicotine and alcohol. We also understand the main components of a 'reward system' that includes a structure in the basal forebrain called the nucleus accumbens, and its connections to major brain regions implicated in the mediation of motivation and emotion, including the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

Although drugs of abuse work at different receptors, many of them have in common their action, direct or indirect, on a chemical messenger system that uses dopamine, which regulates the activity of most of the structures in the 'reward' system, including the nucleus accumbens. What is perhaps most remarkable is the translation of basic research with experimental animals to humans, using such techniques as functional brain imaging and positron emission tomography.

This meeting will bring together UK and international experts to debate the nature and extent of addiction, as well as its causes and consequences, including treatment.