Recently, important developments in several disciplines — from molecular biology through to brain imaging research — have advanced our understanding of the neurobiology of behaviour. In the field of drug addiction, new findings underscore the significance of the biological basis of addiction, as well as the important contributions of environmental, genetic and developmental factors. These new findings could explain why some individuals become addicted and others do not, why addicted individuals might seem to be unmotivated to overcome their addiction, even in the face of harmful consequences, or why previously addicted individuals are susceptible to relapse even years after their last dose. This knowledge could be vital for improving the way in which we approach the problem of addiction and for directing new strategies for more effective prevention and treatment.

In a Perspective article on page 963, Nora Volkow and Ting-Kai Li describe the multiple factors that contribute to addiction, and argue that, as with many chronic diseases, long-term changes in the brain need to be considered alongside the behavioural and social aspects of addiction. Therefore, as they point out, the most effective methods of treatment are likely to involve a combination of therapeutic strategies, such as cognitive–behavioural and pharmacological interventions that, together, will be more beneficial than either given in isolation.

As these authors highlight, the challenge for society now is to use this knowledge to improve public policy and to translate the findings into clinical practice to allow us to make progress in combating addiction. Engagement of the medical community, greater involvement of the pharmaceutical industry and an improvement in social attitudes towards the problem of addiction will determine the success of such strategies.