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Changes in brain structure responsible for substance abuse and impulsivity: Study

Changes in brain structure responsible for substance abuse and impulsivity: Study

Changes in brain structure responsible for substance abuse and impulsivity: Study

May 20th, 2016 | ASAH Team

Substance abuse, a major cause of concern in the United States today, affects people irrespective of their age, ethnicity, gender, IQ, and economic background. Anyone can become addicted to a substance, but some people are more prone to addiction as compared to others.

One may consider disjointed family ties, family history of drug abuse, mental health issues, or genetic factors as some of the key reasons for addiction and abuse. However, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in April 2016 suggested that changes in brain structure increase the probability of a person to abuse alcohol and drugs and show impulsivity in behavior. Such individuals are more prone to seeking stimulation, and hence, are more vulnerable to addiction.

Alterations in specific brain structures lead to substance use disorder

Researcher Avram Holmes, a psychologist at the Yale University, and researchers from the Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that distinct change in brain structures, particularly the areas involved in decision-making and self-control, had a direct bearing on a person’s sensation-seeking and impulsive behavior, such as taking risks, making rapid decisions or craving for intense experiences. These individuals were also found to have a thinner cortex, the brain’s wrinkled outer layer or gray matter. The study primarily focused on the relationship between impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and substance abuse.

Previous studies had highlighted the role of genes in influencing this kind of behavior in some individuals. Other related studies also identified substance use to be the precursor of changes in the structure and function of the brain. However, none of the studies gives enough evidence to show the extent to which brain abnormalities contribute to the probability of a person to develop substance abuse disorder.

As part of the study, the researchers observed 1,234 males and females aged 18-35 years with no signs of any mental illness or substance abuse. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers estimated the size of specific areas of the brain in each participant. The participants were asked to complete a questionnaire pertaining to characteristics associated with sensation-seeking and impulsivity, such as their need for new experiences, and readiness to take risks and make quick decisions.

It was observed that the participants who were reportedly involved in seeking high levels of stimulation or excitement showed decrease in cortical thickness in parts of the brain linked with decision-making and self-control. Any alterations in these brain structures were in accordance with the participants’ self-reported tendency to act unpredictably and led to a probability of addiction to alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine.

“The findings allow us to have a better understanding of how normal variation in brain anatomy in the general population might bias both temperamental characteristics and health behaviors, including substance abuse,” said Holmes. However, further research is needed to understand the significance of alterations in the anatomy of the brain in determining psychiatric illness in those who are vulnerable.

Seeking treatment

People who start taking drugs generally find it difficult to restrain themselves from following their impulses. They are more likely to give in, in most circumstances, making substance abuse a compulsive addiction.

Addiction usually comes with the tendency to become overly fixated on a certain action or behavior, for instance, people who are unable to deal with stress and pressure in life are more likely to use drugs as an escape route.

The researchers believed that the abuse of drugs leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain. The repeated drug abuse over a period of time causes changes in the brain which affects a person’s wisdom and ability to make right decisions.

If you or your loved one is battling addiction, contact the Arizona Substance Abuse Helpline to know about various substance abuse treatment centers in Arizona. You may call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-857-5777 or chat online to get information about various substance abuse rehab clinics that work relentlessly toward helping addicts in their recovery.

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