Addiction and Brain Connections

Drug and alcohol addiction is a major factor in our society today and really, it is not a simple issue with an easy solution where one can just walk in to the local drug rehab center and say “fix me”. Several conditions surrounding addiction still remain a mystery. However, scientists in Massachusetts suggest they’re in the process of developing a better understanding of the brains roll in addictive behavior. Their work confirms that addiction is a complex brain disease that differs from patient to patient, however it raises hopes regarding potential treatments. One of the many findings discovered by the University of Massachusetts Medical School scientists is that addiction appears to permanently effect connections within the brain. The brain becomes “Hard Wired” to support addictive behavior, making permanent solutions difficult.

Nicotine, one of the most addictive substances in the world is being used as the main subject of the studies. Dr. Joeseph DiFranza, a family doctor and professor of family medicine and community health at the medical school, has been studying the brain activity of smokers using MRIs. He claims that what occurs in the brain when someone has a craving for a cigarette is identical to the response a person feels when hungry or thirsty. The result, is the brain refusing to give up until it’s need is met. “We put people in the [MRI] who haven’t smoked overnight and these specific areas of the brain become activated,” says DiFranza. “The more the person reports they’re craving a cigarette, the more activation there are in these regions of the brain. This is not something that we understood even a year ago. We thought craving was [based] on cues.” In his studies DiFranza has discovered that addiction alters connections in the brain. A change that can in fact be permanent. In certain cases he claims that the brain is in fact supporting the addictive behavior. As the urges increase, connectivity appears from the anterior cingulate (the region of the brain where cravings originate) to the frontal cortex (responsible for self-control) “They’ve lost about two-thirds of the nerve fibers connecting the part of the brain responsible for the self control to the part where the craving is generated,” says DiFranza. “So people face some major obstacles when they quit because their brain is actually hard-wired now to support that addiction.”

What scientists still do not understand is why these effects are seen in some patients while not in others. Like most things in this world, the disease is highly subjective. According to scientists, this means that addiction treatment must be individualized to take into account that addiction itself changes the brain. Dr. Jean King, professor of psychiatry and associate provost for biomedical science research, claims that with addiction it’s unlikely that there will ever be one “cure.”

Information obtained from articles published by The University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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