Scans show how the brain reacts when an addict thinks about their vice

How the brain reacts to cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes: Scans show the areas that engage when addicts think about their vice

  • Stimulates region at the front of the brain that is linked to pleasure
  • Could lead to treatments that ‘switch off’ networks in this part of the organ
  • Similar non-invasive therapies are used in depression with few side effects

Scans show the areas of the brain that become activated when a smoker, alcoholic or cocaine addict thinks about their vice.

Showing addicts images of the substances they are dependent on stimulates a region at the front of the organ that is linked to feeling pleasure.

The US researchers hope this finding could lead to treatments that ‘switch off’ networks in this part of the brain.

Similar non-invasive therapies are already used in depression with few side effects. 

Image shows the parts of the brain that became activated when the addicts thought about their vice. On the left is the combined regions for the cocaine users, heavy drinkers and smokers. Right shows how the activated areas vary between different types of addicts

The researchers, from the Medical University of South Carolina, analysed a total of 156 chronic cocaine users, heavy drinkers and smokers.

The participants were shown images of the substance they were dependent on while their brain activity was monitored via an MRI scanner. 

These images were broken up with ‘neutral’ pictures. For example a smoker was shown a person holding a cigarette, followed by them holding a pencil.

‘Hot spots’ in the medial prefrontal cortex region of the brains of all three of the different types of addicts became activated when they saw their vice.

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The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. 

The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with pleasure, as well as decision making and memory. 

The researchers hope that better understanding the brain networks that are affected by addiction will enable them to treat dependencies via non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

TMS is already used to treat depression and works by using magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain that may be suppressed in sufferers of the mental-health disorder.

The treatment is painless and involves a patient placing an electromagnetic coil near their forehead.

Although generally considered safe, the researchers caution TMS can cause headache and even seizures. 

Scan shows the regions that are activated in different types of addicts from varying angles

Studies investigating TMS’ effect on cocaine and alcohol abuse are already underway at the MUSC.

The researchers hope that after around two weeks of treatment, the patients will show less activation in the medial prefrontal cortex.

‘It’s a really exciting time to be in the field,’ senior author Dr Colleen Hanlon said.

‘We have decades of research that have demonstrated specific neural circuits involved in drug use, and we have lots of clinical research that has developed various pharmacological agents. 

‘That’s where TMS comes in. We hope to fill the gap between the studies and helping our patients.’

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