According to a new study, the brains of those addicted to cocaine operate in different ways than those who are not addicted to the drug, with brain functions often connected to impulsive behaviors. Scientists from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Virginia Commonwealth University managed to find variations in the way some regions of the brain communicate, connect and function between people who are addicted to cocaine and those who are not. The study was published in NeuroImage: Clinical.
Cocaine addiction is also referred to as cocaine use disorder and it affects about 800,000 people in the United States alone. However, despite several attempts, medications approved by the FDA to address cocaine use disorder remain undiscovered.
Individuals addicted to cocaine are frequently highly impulsive and more prone to act quickly, without thinking about negative consequences. Impulsivity is connected to higher cases of relapse in cocaine abuse and as a result, it may be a relevant behavioral target for the advancement of drugs aimed at relapse prevention.
To assess and measure impulsivity levels in humans, researchers frequently use the Go/NoGo task, which allows the monitoring of an individual’s capacity to thwart a response that is impulsive. Participants are told to make a certain response, or “Go” when they see a specific image and withhold their responses or “NoGo” in the case of other given images. This allows researchers to understand if people suffering with cocaine use disorder demonstrated impaired task performance and different patterns of brain activity in comparison to non-cocaine users.
Scientists assess differences in brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In this specific study, an fMRI-based technique called Dynamic Causal Modelling allowed the analysis to go one step further by providing a new way to study brain connectivity and design medications that can boost or restore impairment caused by cocaine use disorder.
Researchers found that both cocaine users and non-cocaine users successfully overcame the task, however there were interesting differences: a brain structure that controls motor function was activated in both groups during NoGo response inhibition, but the cortical brain structures that regulate left caudate activity were different between those who were cocaine users and those who were not during more difficult questions of the Go/NoGo task.
“These findings suggest that, while some cortical brain regions show altered activity in cocaine users, other regions may compensate for cocaine-associated deficits in function. Targeting altered brain connections in cocaine use disorder for therapeutic development is a fresh idea, offering a whole new arena for research and the potential to promote abstinence and prevent relapse in these vulnerable individuals,” concluded Kathryn A. Cunningham, the study’s lead author.