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CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta Investigates Addiction -- is Medicine or Counseling Best?


Hazelden, Promises, the Betty Ford Center – the names of some substance abuse treatment centers are almost as famous as some of their alumni. There are more than 20 million substance abuse addicts in America; about 2 million each year turn to residential rehab. A typical month-long stay costs about $26,000, yet the approaches and success rates are wildly uneven. CNN’s chief medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to addicts from all walks of life and levels of recovery, their families, medical researchers, counselors and even visits a “recovery high school” to investigate the latest science and treatments aimed at getting – and keeping – addicts clean and sober.

CNN Presents: Addiction: Life on the Edge, reported will premiere on Saturday, Apr. 18 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and PT.

Medical researchers and counseling therapists still disagree whether addiction is a disease of the brain, or a crisis of willpower – and that creates major issues in identifying the most effective treatments. Gupta leverages his knowledge of the brain to help explain why the physical attributes of addicts’ brains are different, and how the receptors of addicts’ brains react differently to stress and pleasure stimuli that affect decision making, cravings and other behaviors.

Gupta’s interviews include Walter Kent, a recovering alcoholic who after decades of residential and other 12-step-based programs, was finally able to kick his 40-year habit after enrolling in treatment that combined medication and counseling. He’s been sober for 8 years.

This experience echoes the findings of Dr. Bankole Johnson at the University of Virginia and Dr. Mark Willenbring at the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Johnson believes that about 60 percent of alcoholism is biologically genetic, and feels that alcoholism and even cocaine addiction can be successfully treated with medication.
Willenbring agrees. “Most people are not ever told about the medications that are available for treating alcohol dependence. I think that’s a crime,” he says.

Gupta also interviews experts at Hazelden and Promises whose decades of success support their beliefs that addiction differs from diseases like heart disease or blood pressure that are managed with medications, because their causes have major psychological and spiritual components. And, during the course of the documentary, a recovering addict explains the emotional challenges preceding this latest relapse. What may work is likely as varied as what drives addicts to abuse in the first place.

In-depth vignettes about the people featured in the documentary, and additional analysis about the treatments described in Addiction: Life on the Edge can be found at

Tim Langmaid is the supervising producer for CNN’s Health and Medical Unit; Mark Nelson is the vice president and senior executive producer for CNN Productions. Addiction: Life on the Edge will be broadcast in HD.

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