MRI scans reveal “hot spots” of activity in the brain of those with substance abuse issues
While we all understand the broad strokes of substance abuse, many of the finer details about how addiction forms and functions have escaped even the most talented researchers. However, new research published in the journal Translational Psychiatry could help us understand the mechanisms beneath substance dependence and find new targets for treatment.
As the report shows, when people living with substance abuse issues are shown stimuli likely to trigger their addiction, specific areas of their brain light up with activity when viewed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
In the study, Colleen A. Handlon, Ph.D., and colleagues from MUSC recruited 156 individuals with substance abuse issues. Of those, 55 were frequent cocaine users, 53 lived with alcoholism, and 48 were current cigarette smokers.
These participants were then shown images relating to their specific addiction, as well as “neutral” images unrelated to their substance abuse issues. Throughout this process, the researchers observed their brain activity using fMRI.
In every group, the researchers saw “hot spots” of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) when the participants saw triggering images. This is particularly interesting, as this area of the brain is involved in the processes of memory retrieval and rewards.
“As we move forward into clinical trials, these findings suggest that, by modulating the mPFC, we might be able to help multiple forms of substance-dependent populations, rather than having to reinvent the wheel for every particular disease,” Hanlon said in a press release.
The findings are early but provide a promising target for future addiction treatments. The next step for the researchers is to test the effectivity of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy on these hot spots.
TMS is a proven treatment for depression which works by emitting magnetic forces in the brain to control electrical activity and balance neural networks.
“It’s a really exciting time to be in the field,” Hanlon said in the same story. “We have decades of preclinical research that have demonstrated specific neural circuits involved in drug use, and we have lots of clinical research that has developed various pharmacological agents, but we don’t have any neural circuit-based interventions.”