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Gray Matter in Brain Related to Levels of Cocaine Addiction

A new study completed by the Brookhaven National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy has found that gray matter in the brain is related to cocaine addiction. In healthy people, the increased amount of gray matter in the decision-making part of the brain leads those people to better evaluate rewards and consequences. In cocaine addicts, the decreased amount of gray matter in the same area of the brain leads to a lesser degree of decision-making.

A healthy person not addicted to cocaine can therefore process the rewards and consequences found in their decision-making to practice self-control. An addict’s brain can neither efficiently process the information nor practice self-control, making it much more difficult to resist cocaine and conquer their substance abuse issues.

The level of gray matter has not previously been connected specifically to these rewards center, so the researchers at Brookhaven essentially “mapped” the brain structure to determine how the structure of the prefrontal cortex and the reward centers were related. 

Previous studies had found that the levels of gray matter as opposed to white matter in the brain had affected people with various neural diseases, but the other studies had not evaluated drug-addicted persons in depth.

Therefore, Brookhaven entered the unchartered territory and studied cocaine addicted individuals as compared to healthy individuals. To accomplish this, the researchers completed MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans on 39 individuals: 22 cocaine users and 17 healthy persons. Once the MRI scans were completed, researchers placed P300 electrodes on each subject’s scalp to measure electrical signals while subjects completed activities that unlocked rewards.

The rewards varied from zero dollars to 45 cents per correct answer, and the subjects could unlock a total of $50 in rewards. The tasks were timed, and each subject was asked to press buttons in a predetermined sequence. Since the rewards were varied each time, the scientists could determine how the amount of reward affected the subjects’ brain activites.

In the healthy subjects, the P300 brain activity increased when the reward increased, but cocaine addicts’ brain activity did not increase as the reward increased. Interestingly, both sets of subjects reported that they found the tasks to be more intriguing upon increased reward potential. The brains of the cocaine addicts just did not reflect the same increase as a healthy person.

Additionally, the MRI scans revealed that healthy people had higher levels of gray matter in three regions of the brain (all in the prefrontal cortex) than the cocaine addicts. Other regions, structures, and functions did not seem to be affected.

The findings indicate that the reward processing and lesser degrees of brain matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain are linked in the cocaine addicted persons. Because these areas can be attributed to decision-making, emotional function and cognition, the drug addicted individual seems to be at a loss when it comes to controlling behavior, processing rewards and consequences, and experiencing pleasure. All of these impaired functions in the addict’s brain can contribute to further or reoccurring drug addiction, particularly when users or former users are under stress or experiencing a craving.

Unfortunately, the study did not show which is the chicken and which is the egg. That is to say, the study did not determine whether addicts are born with lesser levels of gray matter that contribute to their ability to become addicted or whether drug use causes the gray matter to decrease over time. The researchers hope that their findings can be a catalyst for the discovery of addiction’s causes.    

Even without knowing the causes of substance abuse, the science behind this newest study further supports something that addicts and health officials at cocaine rehabilitation centers may have known all along: it is very difficult to conquer cocaine addiction. Without proper decision-making processes existing in their brains, those suffering from substance abuse may find it particularly difficult to avoid cocaine during times of stress or cravings.

Thankfully, cocaine rehabilitation centers like the Vista Taos Renewal Center, can still help cocaine addicts battle their addictions. With proper support, counseling, and understanding, leaders in cocaine rehabilitation centers can guide those suffering from substance abuse toward more meaningful lives. As more and more scientific findings lead treatment centers to better information about addicts’ brains, the centers can design more effective substance abuse programs.

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction and are in need of cocaine rehabilitation, please contact a rehabilitation center. Finding the help you need can help you better resist substance abuse and live your best life possible.    

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