Could Neuroscience Have Helped Amy Winehouse?

Do roots of the troubled rock star's death lie in brain chemistry?

Posted Jul 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse modeling with alcohol

Amy Winehouse making alcohol look glamorous

Amy's substance-induced  downhill spiral was rapid and dramatic. In 2010, she developed early signs of emphysema, a horrible lung disease, reportedly  from smoking cigarettes and crack. She canceled a European tour, following a horrible performance in June, in which she repeatedly stumbled onstage in Belgrade  Videotapes of the concert train wreck quickly circulated over the internet. Photos taken around that time show an emaciated Amy with scabs on her face and possible trackmarks on her arms; a virtual caricature of a severe addict.

Celebrities & Addiction

Amy Winehouse - severe alcohol and dug addict

A far less glamorous Amy in recent times

Certainly these environmental pressures can lead even a strong person to get caught up in a partying lifestyle, overvaluing of the external and the temporary, and a false sense of invulnerability, or its opposite, paranoia. Both the tremendous rewards of success and high price of failure become vulnerability factors for drug and alcohol use. At first celebrities may drink or party to celebrate, later on to perform, then to cope with the shame of public humiliation, and finally, because they cannot get through the day without the substance.

The same personality characteristics that lead people to seek and achieve celebrity status may also pose a risk for addiction. A person who seeks novelty, stimulation, and intense sensations and is willing to take big risks to achieve these states is also more prone to experiment with drugs and alcohol and to become addicted to the "highs," seeking ever-greater and more novel experiences. 

Can Neuroscience Help?

Dopamine centers of the brain - neuroscience

Dopmine receptors in the brain associated with pleasure & reward

Therefore, genetic testing may hold the key to preventing destructive addiction in both celebrities and other types of leaders, such as politicians and CEO's. Scientists of the future could invent drugs or identify natural supplements to increase dopamine-related pleasure sensation, making individuals less vulnerable to addiction. Psychologists, in turn, could create cognitive and behavioral programs to "retrain the brain" to experience pleasure from ordinary events.  As humans, we have extraordinary ability both to create huge problems that shorten our lifespans and to solve them.  While Amy may have said "no" to rehab, perhaps the next generation of rock stars will say "yes" to preventive testing and intervention to stop them from suffering her tragic fate.


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