Scientists and clinicians gathered in Rockville, Maryland, on October 1-2, 2007, to review initial research results from the burgeoning field of social neuroscience—the study of how neurobiology and the social environment interact.
The NIDA-sponsored meeting, "Social Neuroscience: Developing More Powerful Behavioral Interventions," was part of the institute's ongoing efforts to advance knowledge about the neural underpinnings of interpersonal interactions, emotional responses, and social behaviors that relate to addiction prevention and treatment. The payoff could be great. For example, an understanding of how effective patient-counselor interactions modulate patients' brain function could be used to assess and improve therapeutic relationships. Charting the brain dynamics that occur in healthy, positive social relationships, which protect against drug abuse, could open the door to more effective prevention interventions.
The October meeting explored seven topics: empathy, disruption of social reward in drug abuse, self-monitoring and responding to cues from others, prejudice and self-stigmatization, parent-child interactions among substance abusers, social networks and decisionmaking in adolescents, and mirroring the behavior of others.
What are the interactions between drug abuse and companionship and other social rewards? The answer may rely on combining what is already known about how addiction usurps the reward system with research on less-studied brain circuits—including the interoceptive system, which is made up of neural circuits that monitor and process sensations including pain, temperature, hunger, thirst, and touch, and has been linked with emotion and motivation. NIDA-funded neuroscientist Dr. Martin Paulus reported that his team at the University of California, San Diego, is developing a method to assess interoceptive system functioning during brain imaging. The team plans to examine whether activity of the interoceptive circuit differs between drug abusers and nonabusers.
Dr. Michael Otto of Boston University envisioned one way such investigations might eventually find application in treatment. Noting that brain activity arising from disrupted interoceptive processing may underlie a heightened vulnerability to anxiety, he imagined counselors training substance abusers to use biofeedback—real-time brain scans—to reverse the abnormal activity. The benefits of such "weightlifting for the brain" could include reducing patients' risks of stress-induced relapses to substance abuse.