Prolonged and excessive drug use can change the brain’s chemistry and communication pathways. Studying changes in the brain via medical technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) helps researchers understand the science of addiction and its effects on the brain.
That is what scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are currently doing.
Researchers suggest that brain imaging studies for people with substance use disorders could be useful in identifying patients with addiction who are at risk of relapsing and those who may do well with specific addiction treatments.
How Can MRI Scans Play a Role in Addiction Treatment?
The researchers, who work within the education facility’s Center for Studies of Addiction, use MRI scans to assess how drug-related images trigger different areas of the brain, which could help with understanding addiction. Research shows that MRI scans in people who are addicted to drugs light up in response to activity in the brain’s reward region.
The goal is to manipulate patients’ responses through therapy and medication and to use the findings of such research to come up with better treatments for substance use disorders.
The researchers want to be able to assess the brains of those who have taken part in these MRI scan studies to see if there are any improvements long afterward.
In time, the researchers hope to be able to customize a treatment protocol for each patient by taking both strengths and weaknesses into consideration, as well as past experiences and genetics.
The researchers warn, however, that retraining of the brain will not result in immediate results. Instead, working on the brain over a lifetime is required, much like changes to diet and exercise regimens are lifelong for those battling heart disease and obesity.
What Scientists Can Learn for MRIs
While some individuals might argue that addiction is the result of poor life choices, science suggests that addiction is a disease that needs medical treatment.
After misusing drugs or alcohol in excess over a long period of time, changes in the brain can occur. These changes can be studied with tools like MRIs.
The research by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania maps out how the brain’s “stop” and “go” systems come into play when the person is faced with rewards. In people with substance use disorders, there is often a struggle between the two systems.
Using MRI scans, scientists can assess how the brains of people with SUDs respond to certain cues and triggers to see how successful they would be with a specific type of treatment. What may work for one person might not be as effective for another.
The researchers found that many of the study participants started to become neutralized when faced with cues that were associated with drugs after less than two months of having their brains retrained. Even in the presence of traditional triggers, their cravings were much less intense and even non-existent in some cases.
Treatment Can Help Those with Substance Use Disorders
The findings of the University of Pennsylvania’s researchers are promising and may prove to be helpful for some people who are dealing with addiction. However, even for those who might not find such “brain retraining” effective, there are other treatment options available.