Can These Brain Scans Pinpoint Relapse Risk?

Penn State ResearchersIn his landmark report issued late last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the United States Surgeon General, made it clear that addiction should be treated like any other clinical, chronic condition. In his 400-page report, Facing Addiction in America, Murthy urged the American public to view the disease of addiction with more compassionate optics. “Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”

Taking that same clinical approach, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine are working to develop a new test that may possibly help doctors predict individuals who are most at risk of relapse.

For the past few years, Scott Bunce has been studying the brain activity of those in recovery from an addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers. To conduct the study, Bunce and his team showed images of drugs and drug paraphernalia to the study participants.

His team then asked the research to participants to state if the images induced cravings for the drug or triggered positive feelings or emotions as a result.

Bunce and his team found that those who reported feeling no temptation as a result of seeing the images yet also exhibited increased brain activity as a result were more likely to experience a relapse.

While additional research still needs to be conducted, the scientists hypothesize that this provides further support that addiction is truly a disease of the brain. Individuals may not intentionally express a desire to use and abuse drugs though their brain chemistry may be prompting them to do just that.

“It’s very important that people understand this is a brain disease,” said Sue Grigson, a professor at Penn State College of Medicine who is involved in the research.

One positive takeaway is that while the brain is indeed altered by the exposure to drugs, it can still recover and heal over time and with the right addiction treatment therapies.

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