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Self-Control Deficits Linked to Drug Abuse Precede Drug Exposure

The results of a study just published in the journal Science indicate that people addicted to cocaine have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control that appear to predate any drug abuse. The study, done by a team at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., looked at 50 pairs of siblings. One member of each pair was addicted to cocaine while the other had no history of drug abuse. Interestingly, the brain scans showed that, compared to unrelated control individuals, both siblings shared brains abnormalities that rendered the communication between the control and emotional centers of the brain less efficient. As a result, it took longer for both siblings’ brains to process or deliver a message to stop an impulse.

As detailed in an accompanying commentary, the study offers important new insights into the disease of addiction. First, the fact that siblings without drug problems also had impaired self-control offers strong evidence that these brain abnormalities are inherited, but not deterministic.  Second, it may soon be possible to identify people who have this inherited vulnerability, which should help researchers figure out how to help susceptible people strengthen their self-control. Other studies have shown that strong self-control can have a profound positive impact, not only as a protection factor against substance abuse, but as a universal promoter of individual success.

This page was last updated February 2012

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