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MRIs Can Find Signals that Trigger Drug Cravings

February 22, 2008

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AKINSO: MRIs can find subconscious signals that trigger drug cravings according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Using a functional MRI, scientists have discovered that cocaine-related images trigger the emotional centers of the brains of patients addicted to drugs, even when the subjects are unaware they’ve seen anything. Dr. Steven Grant, NIDA’s Chief of the Neuroscience Branch in the division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, said cues outside one’s awareness can trigger rapid activation of the circuits driving drug-seeking behavior.

GRANT: This study shows that in the area of substance abuse for drug addicts, this processing of very highly relevant information about the presence of stimuli and cues and triggers in the environment that may lead to drug taking are processed by specific areas in the brain in the absence of awareness by the subject.

AKINSO: To verify that the patterns of brain activity triggered by the subconscious cues reflected the patients’ feelings about drugs, researchers gave the patients a different test two days later, allowing them to look longer at the drug images. The patients who demonstrated the strongest brain response to unseen cues in the functional MRI experiment also felt the strongest positive association with visible drug cues. Dr. Grant said understanding how the brain initiates that overwhelming desire for drugs is essential to treating addiction.

GRANT: I think the most immediate payoff here is the empirical demonstration that the drug abuser’s behavior can be influenced by even the most leading exposure to drug related stimuli. That it’s going register in the brain. It’s going to be processed in the brain. And it’s going to be processed in parts of the brain that are also involved in drug seeking.

AKINSO: He added that these results could improve drug treatment strategies.

GRANT: Now what this means for a therapist is it just reiterates what has long been a strategy in the treatment of substance abuse. That the recovering addict needs to be avoiding people, places, and things that are associated with their past drug use and they need to be aware that if they are in overtly exposed to people, places and things that it’s going to literally push bottoms in their brains. And they need to develop strategies even though they may not be aware that those buttons are being pushed.

AKINSO: This is Wally Akinso at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

This page was last updated February 2008

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