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Substance Use Tied to Overactive Brain Reward Areas

Substance Use Tied to Overactive Brain Reward Areas  New research suggests overactivity of specific brain reward regions may cause an individual to have greater cravings for drugs.

Investigators from the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) used what they called a “reward surfeit model” to investigate if such heightened brain activity can cause individuals to develop food or drug addictions.

The results indicated that elevated responsivity of reward regions in the brain increased the risk for future substance use, which has never been tested before prospectively with humans.

However, results also provide evidence that even a limited history of substance use was related to less responsivity in the reward circuitry, as has been suggested by experiments with animals.

The research will appears in a future issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The research team of Eric Stice, Ph.D., used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test whether individual differences in reward region responsivity predicted overweight/obesity onset among initially healthy weight adolescents.

Researchers also used fMRI to determine if differences in reward center responsivity influcenced substance use onset among initially abstinent adolescents.

The neural response to food and monetary reward was measured in 162 adolescents. Body fat and substance use were assessed at the time of the fMRI and again one year later.

“The findings are important because this is the first test of whether atypical responsivity of reward circuitry increases risk for substance use,” Stice said.

“Although numerous researchers have suggested that reduced responsivity is a vulnerability factor for substance use, this theory was based entirely on cross-sectional studies comparing substance abusing individuals to healthy controls; no studies have tested this thesis with prospective data.”

Investigators first examined the extent to which reward circuitry was activated in response to receipt and anticipated receipt of money.

Monetary reward is a general reinforcer and has been used frequently to assess reward sensitivity.

The team also used another paradigm to assess brain activation in response to the individual’s consumption and anticipated consumption of a chocolate milkshake. Results showed that greater activation in the brain region called the striatum during monetary reward receipt at baseline predicted future substance use onset over a one-year follow-up.

Investigators discovered that adolescents who had already begun using substances showed less brain response to monetary reward. This finding provides the first evidence that even a relatively short period of moderate substance use might reduce reward region responsivity.

“The implications are that the more individuals use psychoactive substances, the less responsive they will be to rewarding experiences, meaning that they may derive less reinforcement from other pursuits, such as interpersonal relationships, hobbies, and school work,” Stice said. “This may contribute to the escalating spiral of drug use that characterizes substance use disorders.”

Researchers did not find a similar reward system response for food. Investigators say that it is possible that these effects are weaker and that a longer follow-up period will be necessary to better differentiate who will gain weight and who will remain at a healthy weight.

Source: Oregon Research Institute

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Substance Use Tied to Overactive Brain Reward Areas

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Substance Use Tied to Overactive Brain Reward Areas. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Apr 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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