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The Brain vs. Addiction

A study conducted at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley may hold a new key to the neurological demands in drug addiction. Head researcher Jonathan Wallis, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley; associate researcher Steven Kennerley, University of London; and Timothy Behrens, the University of Oxford in England worked together to pinpoint the exact location of addictive and compulsive centers of the brain.

The areas of the brain pinpointed in the study are the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Pinpointing these areas help researchers greater understand drug addiction, and they could help future researchers develop targeted treatments for use at rehabilitation centers like the Vista Taos Renewal Center in New Mexico, north of Santa Fe. These centers can then help patients in even more effective ways, helping those suffering from drug addiction and alcohol abuse in the best ways possible. 

Some treatments that may become more effective now that we know the exact location of addictions include pharmaceutical drugs, behavioral modification and deep brain stimulation, all of which are currently offered at many rehabilitation centers for drug addiction. However, the location is the key and may help these current treatments become more effective.

The study was begun based on observation. Many people who have suffered injury to the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex begin to make bad choices. Whether they quit their jobs or get divorced, among many other bad choices they may make, people who suffer from these types of injuries often repeatedly make bad decisions.

The link between the injuries in these centers of the brain and in people suffering from drug addictions is similar. Those with addictions show very similar behavioral tendencies to the brain injury patients, making many of the same decisions that completely disrupt their lives. The drugs that the addicts take seem to affect the same areas of the brain, where decision making is affected.

Although the researchers were fairly certain that the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex were responsible for decision making, they decided to test their hypothesis with macaque monkeys. The researchers set up reward system for the monkeys to play with. The system delivered juice to the monkeys when they chose certain pictures, and the monkeys were able to discover the picture system rather quickly.

While the monkeys played, researchers documented the activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The macaque monkeys, whose brains are very similar to humans, proved that the cortexes played large parts in the decision making process. When the monkeys weighed the costs and benefits of each decision, the cortexes would be activated, and depending on the gravity of the decision, the activation of each center differed.

This means that the monkeys were able to show that there is a difference in our abilities to make huge life choices and mundane choices. For example, choosing a career path is much more impactful than choosing a coffee sweetener, and humans are able to activate different centers of the orbitofrontal cortex for each.

In those who suffer from drug addiction, the differences were not seen between decisions with more grave consequences. Drug addicts, it seems, do not place any more importance on weighing choices about career paths than on coffee sweeteners. Additionally, learning to weigh choices and file them away for later reference seem to be missing as well. Addicts continuously make the same bad choices over and over again, never learning from past mistakes.

These findings can help us all understand substance abuse and other addictive behaviors better, which can hopefully help remove the stigma of drug addiction. Now that we realize the severity of the damage done to an addict’s brain, we can understand the behaviors associated with drug addiction better. Additionally, drug rehabilitation centers should be able to better treat addicts now that we have a greater understanding of the addict’s brain activities during different choices.

Eventually, drug rehabilitation center success rates should increase beyond the already good success rates, and drug addiction may become a curable disease. For now, addicts may be able to take solace in the fact that decision making has been altered in their brains and take the steps necessary to step beyond the injury.  

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