Souvid Datta
Health + Tech /24 Oct 2019
10.24.19

Scientists Discover New Brain Mechanisms That Could Help Addiction Treatment

Professionals who treat addiction feel stymied when patients relapse repeatedly. In an inpatient environment, people get the care and support they need. However, when they return to daily life, they may experience the same triggers that led them to the addiction in the first place.

Now, new neurological research focuses on the area of the brain that suppresses the urge to abuse substances. By tapping into the factors that keep people from using, scientists hope to develop more effective treatments for addiction.

What Have Researchers Discovered?

Even people who habitually abuse alcohol and narcotics don’t necessarily indulge every minute or day. What makes them more likely to use at certain times and not others?

Many who struggle with addiction turn to the habit to cope with environmental triggers. These include things like an argument with a loved one or a trying day at work. Researchers wanted to know what happens in the brain in the absence of such stimuli. Could they use that information to develop better treatment protocols?

Scientists used male rats engineered to crave alcohol and cocaine. They conditioned them to associate the scent of citrus with the absence of their drug of choice. Over time, when the mice smelled the signature aroma, the part of their brain that lit up when they needed a fix stopped reacting in the presence of this “omission stimuli.”

Researchers believe certain neurons adapt to respond to omission stimuli — external cues that the addictive substance isn’t available. They hope they can create similar neural pathways in the brains of humans struggling with substance abuse.

What Causes Addiction?

The mechanisms behind addiction seem simple. For example, drugs like heroin mimic neural transmitters by attaching onto and activating specific neurons. These send abnormal messages — cravings — through the system, compelling the individual to use.

However, not all people who try drugs or alcohol become addicted. It’s easy to say one use won’t lead to addiction. Yet, the brevity of use has little bearing on who becomes hooked. Some people enjoy a beer or glass of wine every day but never proceed to alcoholism. For others, a single drink leads to another and another.

A person’s genetic code can play a role in whether they become addicted. So can their upbringing, although it’s difficult to determine how growing up in an environment where one or both parents used influences behavior. After all, some children of alcoholic parents religiously abstain to prevent visiting similar trauma.

Drug users are more likely to commit crimes than sober individuals, at times to obtain a fix. However, others go without when attaining their drug of choice is problematic. Functional alcoholics, for example, may refrain from use on the clock.

If medical science can harness this inhibiting factor by associating omission stimuli — such as a particular scent — with an absence of the drug, people struggling with addiction can add another tool to their arsenal. Just as a rat will repeatedly press a lever for food, when the individual encounters these stimuli, they’ll react by understanding they can’t get more.

Addicts can use this omission stimuli to redirect their thought processes when they encounter triggers that increase cravings. If a stressful encounter with the boss makes them want to flee to the nearest corner store and grab a pint, they can turn on an aromatherapy device containing a scent they associate with suppression. This method could help prevent relapses, especially when combined with other therapies.

What Are Current Addiction Treatments?

Currently, several addiction treatments exist, such as:

  • Long-term residential care: This represents the most aggressive treatment modality. However, it’s difficult for many to suspend their daily lives long enough to participate. People lack adequate paid leave. Plus, those who work for small businesses don’t fall into the Family and Medical Leave Act and may not be able to take time off without losing their job.
  • Short-term residential care: These programs typically last from three days to two weeks. They focus primarily on detox and treatment, which continues on an outpatient basis after.
  • Outpatient therapy: Both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) help those struggling with addiction to reframe their thoughts and learn healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Support groups: Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are free to all, though they both accept donations. For people lacking medical insurance, support groups offer an affordable way to get care.

Since not everyone can access long-term residential programs to retrain their brain, many struggle with addiction detox and immediately enter a relapse. Adding omission stimuli could greatly benefit those who can’t get to a meeting or afford therapy.

Researchers hope to perform further experiments to determine how addiction impacts the brain. In the meantime, those struggling may be able to create omission stimuli and use them. In the battle to stay sober, any weapon helps.

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