Although heroin users benefit from methadone when attempting to quit, there is currently no proven medication to help individuals addicted to cocaine and amphetamines.
“Treatment for stimulant dependence is difficult and often individuals battling addiction relapse several times,” said research leader Dr. Karen Ersche of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge.
“At the moment, the standard treatment for people dependent on cocaine and amphetamines mainly involves behavioural approaches such as counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy — which are useful. However, our research provides important insight into the potential development of medications which could help curb the desire of those plagued with addiction, increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery.”
For the study, Ersche and her team asked stimulant-dependent individuals to perform a learning task while their brains were scanned. They asked the same of volunteers who did not use any drugs.
The researchers found that the stimulant-dependent group had trouble adjusting their behavior when one of the rules was changed — they persistently responded to the previously correct stimulus even after repeatedly being told that the rule had changed and their responses were incorrect.
“Their inflexible performance on the task resembles their drug-taking habits in as much as stimulant-dependent people do almost everything to take drugs even when there are negative consequences such as job loss, debts, or relationship breakups,” said Ersche.
The brain scans which were administered while the volunteers performed the task revealed that this persistent behavior was directly linked with low activity in the brain’s reward system. However, their performance improved and brain activity became normal when when the participants were given a medication that increased the chemical dopamine in the brain’s reward center.
“However, before this medication can be used for the treatment of stimulant-dependent individuals in clinical practice, more research would be needed using multiple doses over longer periods of time,” added Ersche.
Prior research by the same group also found that certain regions in the brain’s reward system were considerably larger in cocaine users; these are the areas most affected by cocaine use, and scientists believe this renders the users more vulnerable to the effects of the drugs.
Source: University of Cambridge