Brain Differences in Occasional Drug Users Signal Risk of Addiction

brain differencesUniversity of California—San Diego School of Medicine researchers have found brain differences in college-aged students who are occasional users of cocaine, amphetamines, and prescription drugs.[1] Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researcher found impaired neuronal activity in parts of the brain that are associated with anticipatory functioning.1 These differences, researchers believe, represent an internal hard wiring that make some people more prone to drug addiction in later life.1

“If you show me 100 college students and tell me which ones have taken stimulants a dozen times, I can tell you those students’ brains are different,” said Martin Paulus, MD, professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study. “Our study is telling us, it’s not ‘this is your brain on drugs,’ it’s ‘this is the brain that does those drugs.’”1

For the study, 18- to 24-year-old college students were shown either an X or and O on a screen and were instructed to press a left button for X and a right button for O as quickly as possible.1 If they heard a tone, they were instructed not to press a button.1 For each student, their reaction times and errors were measured for 288 trials, while their brain activity was recorded with fMRI.1

Researchers characterized occasional drug users as having taken stimulants an average of 12 to 15 times.1 Their control group included students who had never taken stimulants.1 Both of the groups were screened for factors that might affect the study’s results, such as alcohol use and mental health disorders.1

Results showed that the students who were occasional drug users had slightly faster reaction times, which suggested increased impulsivity.1 However, when a tone was heard, the occasional users made more mistakes and their performance worsened as the task became more difficult.1 Their brain images showed patterns consistent with diminished neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning.1

“We used to think that drug addicts just did not hold themselves back, but this work suggests that the root of this is an impaired ability to anticipate a situation and to detect trends in when they need to stop,” said the study’s lead author Katia Harlé, PhD.1

Researchers believe the next step is to examine to which degree the brain activity patterns are permanent or can be re-calibrated.1 It may be possible to exercise weak areas where weakened neuronal activity is associated with a higher tendency to addiction.1

“Right now there are no treatments for stimulant addiction, and the relapse rate is upward of 50 percent,” said Paulus. “Early intervention is our best option.”1

[1] Wood, J. (2014). Brain Differences in Some Drug Users May Signal Risk of Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/03/29/brain-differences-in-some-drug-users-may-signal-risk-of-addiction/67809.html

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