“We have to realize they are unable to maintain abstinence not for lack of desire but because their brain is damaged,” said Eric Nestler, a professor of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a leading expert on the molecular basis of addiction.
Research has shown that repeated and prolonged drug use causes profound changes in the brain. These changes sometimes even intensify during withdrawal – triggering relapse.
To better understand how those alterations can be reversed to reduce cravings and the risk of relapse, more scientists are dedicating their research to this area of addiction treatment.
In a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers at the Center for Addictive Disorders at Mount Sinai found widespread changes in the brains of heroin addicts. A team of scientists led by Yasmin Hurd, director of the Center for Addictive Disorders at Mount Sinai, found that prolonged addiction is associated with increased activity in the genes that govern the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is known to influence drug cravings and relapse risk.
So, how can we put this information about alterations in brain chemistry to good use? In one recent example, Peter Kalivas, chair of neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina, has been researching the use of N-acetylcysteine, an antioxidant thought to interfere with glutamate signaling in the brain. Kalivas and his team recently conducted a small study reviewing the effects of N-acetylcysteine among individuals with PTSD and a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.
And, the results were extremely encouraging. The research participants who received N-acetylcysteine reported a reduction in cravings by 81 percent while the group receiving a placebo reported a reduction of merely 32 percent.
In essence, they were able to “reprogram” the brain chemistry and reverse the effects of a chemical dependency.
These researchers are making great strides to advance the field of addiction medicine and break the stereotype that it is a “moral failing”. Addiction is serious, chronic condition that fundamentally changes the user’s brain chemistry. To effectively address an addiction to drugs or alcohol, these biological changes need to be taken into consideration.