Addictions: Broken Brain Model vs Systems-Level Perspective

Research Paper Title

Curing the broken brain model of addiction: Neurorehabilitation from a systems perspective.


The dominant biomedical perspective on addictions has been that they are chronic brain diseases.

While the authors acknowledge that the brains of people with addictions differ from those without, they argue that the “broken brain” model of addiction has important limitations. They propose that a systems-level perspective more effectively captures the integrated architecture of the embodied and situated human mind and brain in relation to the development of addictions. This more dynamic conceptualisation places addiction in the broader context of the addicted brain that drives behaviour, where the addicted brain is the substrate of the addicted mind, that in turn is situated in a physical and socio-cultural environment.

From this perspective, neurorehabilitation should shift from a “broken-brain” to a systems theoretical framework, which includes high-level concepts related to the physical and social environment, motivation, self-image, and the meaning of alternative activities, which in turn will dynamically influence subsequent brain adaptations. The authors call this integrated approach system-oriented neurorehabilitation.

They illustrate their proposal by showing the link between addiction and the architecture of the embodied brain, including a systems-level perspective on classical conditioning, which has been successfully translated into neurorehabilitation. Central to this example is the notion that the human brain makes predictions on future states as well as expected (or counterfactual) errors, in the context of its goals.

The authors advocate system-oriented neurorehabilitation of addiction where the patients’ goals are central in targeted, personalised assessment and intervention.


Wiers, R.W. & Verschure, P. (2020) Curing the broken brain model of addiction: Neurorehabilitation from a systems perspective. Addictive Behaviors. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106602. Online ahead of print.

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