Medication may prevent addiction relapse, study suggests

As more resources are given to research that aims to understand the psychological and chemical processes behind drug and alcohol addiction, science is getting closer to a complete understanding of what it means to be physically dependent on a drug. For decades, addiction was thought to be a choice, or a result of a lack of self-control and willpower on the part of the user. Many incorrectly thought that addiction treatment centers would affect no lasting change in those struggling with substance abuse.

Over the years, however, the efficacy of recovery programs has been proven, and scientific research continues to uncover answers and solutions to addiction that did not exist before. According to a recent study from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction a medication previously used to treat patients with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders may be effective in aiding those in recovery from drug abuse to resist unconscious cravings that do not surface due to triggers or problematic actions. By decreasing the threat of subconscious desire to addiction relapse, those working through recovery may be able to increase their overall chances of success.

Investigating addiction relapse urges

The study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, sought to explore the link between unconscious desires to return to addiction relapse behaviors despite their obvious consequences and the participants’ ability to control these urges. At the center of the study was the drug baclofen, which was first approved in 1977 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat spasm from spinal cord injuries.

The researchers contacted 23 men who reported at least eight days of heavy cocaine use in the month before testing began, though a 10-day stay in an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility was mandated as part of the study. Of the 23 participants, 12 were given baclofen, and the remainder was given a placebo. After ramping up the dosage of baclofen in the test group, researchers placed all participants into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and showed them pictures of cocaine preparation, use and equipment for durations of only 33 milliseconds. The goal was to bypass the participants’ conscious processing of the images to measure the subliminal response to drug use that could explain uncontrollable urges.

The study found that baclofen produced a much lower neurological response to images of drug use. Brain activity was measured against neutral images, as well as pictures of a sexual nature. While the fMRI results showed no effect from baclofen from those stimuli, the electrical activity caused by unconscious drug triggers was drastically reduced.

Fighting against addiction relapse

Anna Rose Childress, Ph.D., director of the Brain-Behavioral Vulnerabilities Division in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and senior author of the study, believes that the findings could better inform treatments for those with histories of substance abuse who relapse without a clear reason.

“The study was inspired by patients who had experienced moments of ‘volcanic craving,’ being suddenly overcome by the extreme desire for cocaine, but without a trigger that they could put their finger on,” Childress said in a statement. “Now, we wanted to understand whether a medication could inhibit these early brain responses.”

Kimberley Young, Ph.D., first author of the study, explained that dopamine release is commonly behind most urges in those recovering from drug use. While the act of getting high or watching others participate in substance abuse can trigger a flood of dopamine, unconscious stimuli can do the same. With the study’s results, however, baclofen may be an effective way to help those working toward recovery resist desires outside of their control.

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