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New Strategy to Consider for Treatment of Addiction

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New Strategy to Consider for Treatment of Addiction

May 04, 2016

Emerging science in the study of addiction may fundamentally change the way we approach and treat addiction. University of Utah psychotherapist Eric L. Garland, Ph.D, discuss new research that shows how addiction may actually be a symptom of “normal learning gone awry” and how doctors at the U are using this knowledge to create new, more effective treatments for patients suffering from addiction.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: How to treat addiction based on what we understand about the neuroscience of addiction. That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: Health tips, medical news, research and more for a happier, healthier life. From University of Utah Health Sciences, this is The Scope.

Interviewer: Eric Garland is a clinical researcher and practicing licensed psychotherapist at the University of Utah. Neuroscience is looking at a new way of thinking about addiction which then would guide how we would treat addiction. Give me a little background, how the school of thought in neuroscience treats addiction right now or thinks about addiction.

Eric: Sure. So there's really a way of understanding addiction that has emerged out of the past couple of decades, and there's been a lot of research and time and energy put into understanding this problem, and what we're coming to realize is that addiction is really a process of normal learning gone awry. The same processes in the brain that facilitate normal learning get hijacked by drugs of abuse.

Normally when we learn things, when we have an experience and the experience is rewarding, this tells the brain to do this thing again. And so we learn that that activity or that experience is valuable. We get some sort of pleasure or reward out of it.

In everyday life that might be good relationships with people that we care about, doing activities and hobbies that we love. It might be something simple like enjoying the pleasure of a tasty, healthy meal or a beautiful sunset or the snow on the mountains, but as a person becomes addicted, the effects of addictive drugs on the dopamine system in the brain cause changes in this normal learning pattern such that what was once rewarding becomes less rewarding and the brain becomes more and more dependent on drugs to receive the same amount of pleasure and reward.

Even drug use itself in the beginning is highly stimulating and rewarding to the brain. It produces a surge of dopamine release. But over time, the drug itself produces less reward and drug use becomes more and more of an automatic habit. People start to use drugs on automatic pilot without getting any pleasure out of it. It's just like any other habit we have that we do. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, the more automatic it becomes, the less you have to think about it, and that habit starts to become triggered by cues. For example, if you're an alcoholic driving past the bar or driving past a liquor store, or if you're a smoker and you smoke in social situations.

Interviewer: Or just even driving. I've known smokers that I could predict when they pull a cigarette out based on where we were in a trip.

Eric: Exactly.

Interviewer: By the time we hit the stop sign at the end of the street, a cigarette is going to be out. By the time we hit here, another cigarette's going to be out.

Eric: Exactly.

Interviewer: So wow, okay.

Eric: And they may not even intend to be smoking it. They may not even realize that they're smoking it. A lot of smokers have the experience of sort of looking down and seeing that half their cigarette's gone up and they don't even remember smoking it. It just becomes an automatic habit. It doesn't even give them pleasure anymore.

Interviewer: And then worse yet, the other things that didn't give them pleasure, don't give them pleasure anymore.

Eric: That's right.

Interviewer: So what do you do with that point? How do you break this cycle?

Eric: Right, and so the cycle, it gets worse because the things that used to give them pleasure are no longer giving them pleasure and the drug isn't giving them pleasure. The person is in a deficit. They're in a negative mood state and that really drives them to take higher and higher doses of the drug just to feel okay. And there's the addictive cycle right before you.

Interviewer: So how do you solve that?

Eric: Well, if this is the problem then it seems that we need treatments that can do two things. One, they can help a person become aware of the automatic habit of addiction, to become aware of when cues are triggering this automatic habit so that the person can begin to exercise some self-control over the automatic habit.

And then two, we need treatments that can help people to find a way to enjoy pleasure in life again, to teach the brain to relearn how to feel a sense of pleasure and reward from everyday activities that used to bring them pleasure.

Interviewer: And what are some of those things that you can do to start discovering pleasure in life again?

Eric: Yeah, so that is where a technique called mindfulness comes into play because mindfulness is really, although it's based on some ancient techniques for training the mind, we're coming to realize now with neuroscience that this approach actually strengthens both of those processes, both self-control over automatic habits as well as increasing attentional focus that might enhance the experience of reward.

Interviewer: Let me jump back for a second. So this is just one way of looking at addiction, what you've described to me. How sure are we that this is the way it is? I mean, how have they figured out this much?

Eric: There've been multiple millions of dollars invested by the National Institutes of Health, specifically the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcoholism devoted to this topic. These studies range from studies with animals, studies with humans and even studies down to the cellular level to understand how neurons communicate to each other and how drugs actually affect neurotransmission.

One simple way that this has been shown to be the case is by putting people in a brain scanner and watching how their brains respond when they're shown drug-related cues on a screen, for example, pictures of cigarettes, and showing activations in brain circuits in the reward center of the brain, and as addiction progresses seeing activations in the dorsal striatum which is the part of the brain that's involved in habit responses, and conversely seeing the opposite effects with regard to naturally rewarding queues.

So if you put somebody in a brain scanner and this person has developed addiction and you show them, for example, cues of smiling babies or beautiful sunsets or couples holding hands, the brain responds less sensitively to those cues.

Interviewer: It seems like some people are more prone to addiction. With this way of thinking, why would that be, or is that a false statement to begin with?

Eric: No, there's quite a bit of research looking into, for example, the genetic factors that predispose somebody to addiction, but in the line of discussion that we're talking about, people vary to the extent to which they're naturally sensitive to rewards. They vary to the extent to which they seek out novelty, they're sensation-seeking is the term, and they also vary to the extent to which they can control their impulses. Some people are just better naturally at stopping themselves and exerting self-control than others.

But my interest as a therapist is how people can train those capacities so that no matter where you start from, you can train your mind to strengthen self-control and strengthen your ability to experience pleasure in everyday life.

Interviewer: Are there any resources that if somebody wanted to learn more on their own that you could steer them towards?

Eric: There are a number of practitioners in the community that are practicing mindfulness-based therapies and there are also a number of providers in the community that are practicing other evidence-based treatments for addiction like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Interviewer: How is this way of treating being approached right now by the rest of the addiction community, people that don't subscribe to this philosophy?

Eric: This is a really hot topic right now in the addiction research field in terms of the importance of reward, the importance of sensitivity to natural reward as a predictor of addiction-related problems, but the idea that we could actually improve this capacity in somebody who is addicted and has lost the ability to feel pleasure in everyday life, this is a brand new thing. So it's a pretty hot topic and controversial.

Interviewer: Yeah, and not only overcoming addiction but actually maybe even be happier than they were ever before.

Eric: Exactly. It has a lot of applications to other issues, too, like depression or chronic pain and just improving the healthy response in life.

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