People With Substance Use Disorder Have Similar Brain Networks

A person holding alcohol in a glass.
A new study looks at how the brains of people with substance use disorder can be similar.Helene Cyr/Stocksy United
  • New research demonstrates a common brain network among people with substance use disorder.
  • The brain neurocircuitry of addiction is associated with the dopamine reward neurocircuitry.
  • Addiction can also have a genetic component and there is evidence to suggest certain people are more predisposed to developing substance use disorders than others. However, environmental and lifestyle factors also play a role.

There is a common brain network among people with substance use disorder, according to a new study published this week in Nature Mental Health.

Dr. Adam Bisaga, Medical Director of Ophelia and a professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, pointed out how the brain function of a person with addiction can be altered.

“When we examine brain function in a person who is addicted, we see unusually low or high activity in the brain centers and circuits responsible for pleasure, learning and memory, and motivation to perform and inhibit certain behaviors,” Bisaga, who was not involved in the research, said. “As a result of these changes, individuals with Substance Use Disorders have intense responses to certain external stimuli, such as passing by the liquor store, and to internal experiences, such as feelings of sadness or anger. In response, they experience powerful urges to use the given substance, and cannot stop thinking about it.”

What the study found

Researchers from at Brigham and Women’s Hospital investigated data from over 100 studies of addiction research and discovered abnormal patterns with substance use disorders linked to a specific brain network. 

In this study, the findings support previous research that has examined neuroimaging abnormalities in substance use disorders. Meta-reviews of prior studies have attempted to discover the joining of abnormalities to similar brain regions, as opposed to similar brain networks. 

Researchers were able to test whether different types of neuroimaging abnormalities were connected to a common brain network. Their results confirmed a network that was consistent across substance use disorders and imaging modalities. 

These findings indicate a possible brain circuit that can be applied to neurostimulation treatments. 

“It was surprising to see that brain imaging abnormalities across so many different substances of abuse map to the same brain circuit,” Dr. Michael Fox, MD, PhD, a corresponding author on the paper and founding director of the Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Healthline. “This suggests that the same brain circuit might be a therapeutic target for treating many different types of addiction.” 

Fox continued: “The next step in terms of research will be targeting this brain circuit with brain stimulation interventions to see if addiction improves.”

Bisaga pointed out how this study is different because it focused on brain networks instead of regions of the brain.

“The study found that brain pathology seen across all types of addiction map to a common brain network. These results are consistent with prior studies showing that the pathology seen in individuals with addiction centers on brain networks and regions involved in regulating craving or wanting the drug, reward-related attention, emotion and risky decision-making,” Bisaga said. “Understanding the networks involved can help develop targeted treatment to alter the abnormalities.”

Bisaga pointed out how these changes in the brain can make treating addiction difficult.

“Their ability to resist these intense urges is limited, even though they well know that using drugs can have catastrophic consequences,” Bisaga said. “These exaggerated responses persist for a long time, even in people who were able to abstain from use, and as a result many individuals repeatedly relapse. This set of abnormal responses and behaviors is at the center of the pathology associated with addiction.”

What happens in the mind during addiction

While addiction affects both mental and physical health, it’s a disease that is occurring in the brain.

“Addiction is a complex problem that can involve an interplay of many factors, biologic, genetic factors though not always, emotional and behavioral triggers,” said Dr. Louise Stanger, LCSW, CSAT-1, CDWF. “Scientists have determined that addiction is a brain disease.”

Substance use generally affects areas like the basal ganglia, and more broadly the brain’s reward centers and the neurotransmitter dopamine, Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” Podcast, told Healthline.

In other words, substance use stimulates those areas that feel “rewarding.” 

“The longer and more consistently a person uses, their brain will make less of its own dopamine,” Saltz explained. “This means it will take more drug use to get the same rewards over time.”

Additionally, the brain will respond with less dopamine to non-drug-related “rewards.” Plus, not using drugs can mean withdrawal is a very negative physical experience, so the brain will crave more dopamine and more drugs. This becomes the vicious loop of addiction, Saltz added.

The study mentions there is a common brain network linked to addiction. Understanding the brain circuitry of substance use disorders is the first step to treating them.

“It is generally thought that the neurocircuitry involved is that associated with the dopamine reward neurocircuitry,” said Saltz. “That being said, once that area is affected, and dopamine is affected it is likely other neurotransmitters also become involved.”

Genetic predisposition to addiction

It is possible to be genetically predisposed to addiction and there are certain factors that increase the likelihood of someone developing an addiction. 

“Addiction does run in families and there does appear to be a biological genetic predisposition to addiction, which means it is likely something about the neurocircuitry of those people that makes them more susceptible to developing the cycle of addiction once they start any drug use,” Saltz stated.

Interestingly, early studies on twins tried to explain however how one twin may develop an addiction and the other would not despite the same genetic base. Results showed environment and lifestyle also play a role.

“What’s important is doing a comprehensive bio-psych-social history,” said Stanger. “This includes a complete medical history, family history of addiction, Process disorder (food, sex, gambling, sex, digital, religiosity, [disordered] eating, etc.) sudden death trauma, relational difficulties, marriages, divorces, educational challenges, financial difficulties, religion, gender etc along with exposure and usage of mind-altering substances and mental health challenges.”

Learning age of first use, quantity and frequency is equally as important as well as taking a look at what negative consequences if any have occurred  (school, legal, medical, job, relational) as a result of using alcohol and other drugs, Stanger noted.

Resources to help treat addiction

As simple or as hard as it sounds, ask for help whether it’s at your workplace, school counselor, or another outlet, help is available, Stanger recommends.

There are many different resources available including self-help groups for those struggling with addiction, support groups for families, professional organizations such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine, NASW, Psychology, Marriage and Family Counselors, and national hotlines such as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Teen Line.

Takeaway

A new study shows a common brain network exists among people with substance use disorder.

The circuitry in the brain of those with addiction addiction is linked with the dopamine reward neurocircuitry.

Genetics also plays a role in addiction, with research confirming that some people are more likely to have substance use disorders than others.

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