September 24, 2017  Last Update: December 21, 2016, 11:10 pm

Biological Psychiatry says Size Matters with Cocaine Addiction

cocaine abuse frontal lobe research

Research suggests frontal lobe size is related to our ability to “handle” cocaine without becoming addicted.

New research to be published in the  journal “Biological Psychiatry” suggests that  some people who can handle cocaine, have distinctive brain structures when compared to those who suffer cocaine addiction.  The ability to “manage” cocaine without becoming overwhelmed by addiction seems to have something to do with the size of parts of the frontal lobe.

Similarly, those who use cocaine over time experiences changes in brain structure, including reductions in the size of the same portions of the frontal lobe.

The Cambridge University researchers previously reported on noted differences in the frontal lobe structures while examining  cocaine users suffering compulsive addictive behavior. They suggest that these latest findings support the disease model for cocaine addiction, and that continued cocaine use may cause furtherance of the disease state.

People who take cocaine over many years without becoming addicted have a brain structure which is significantly different from those individuals who developed cocaine-dependence

Research is partially funded by pharmaceutical companies, and seeks to understand why some recreational users do not get addicted to cocaine, while others become seriously addicted and lose control of their ability to manage cocaine cravings.

The researchers believe that preventive strategies might be better targeted if candidates are screened for personality traits related to self control, as well as  brain anatomy. They acknowledge that socio-economic factors may also play a role (since many recreational cocaine users are affluent, and may have started using recreational drugs relatively late in life).

When cocaine addiction is identified as a disease, and cocaine use is shown to contribute to the disease state, drugs designed to stop cocaine use (or prevent abuse, or interrupt the addiction cycle) can be recognized as medically necessary for health, not just as treatment for addiction. Clearly  further research is needed.

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New research suggests why some people are more prone to cocaine addiction than others
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From the University of Cambridge Announcement:

People who take cocaine over many years without becoming addicted have a brain structure which is significantly different from those individuals who developed cocaine-dependence, researchers have discovered. New research from the University of Cambridge has found that recreational drug users who have not developed a dependence have an abnormally large frontal lobe, the section of the brain implicated in self-control. Their research was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

For the study, led by Dr Karen Ersche, individuals who use cocaine on a regular basis underwent a brain scan and completed a series of personality tests. The majority of the cocaine users were addicted to the drug but some were not (despite having used it for several years).

The scientists discovered that a region in the frontal lobes of the brain, known to be critically implicated in decision-making and self-control, was abnormally bigger in the recreational cocaine users. The Cambridge researchers suggest that this abnormal increase in grey matter volume, which they believe predates drug use, might reflect resilience to the effects of cocaine, and even possibly helps these recreational cocaine users to exert self-control and to make advantageous decisions which minimize the risk of them becoming addicted.

They found that this same region in the frontal lobes of the brain was significantly reduced in size in people with cocaine dependence, confirming earlier research that had found similar results. They believe that at least some of these changes are the result of drug use, which causes drug users to lose grey matter.

They also found that people who use illicit drugs like cocaine exhibit high levels of sensation-seeking personality traits, but only those developing dependence show personality traits of impulsivity and compulsivity.

Dr Ersche, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge, said: “These findings are important because they show that the use of cocaine does not inevitably lead to addiction in people with good self-control and no familial risk.

“Our findings indicate that preventative strategies might be more effective if they were tailored more closely to those individuals at risk according to their personality profile and brain structure.”

The researchers will next explore the basis of the recreational users’ apparent resilience to drug dependence.

Dr Ersche added: “Their high level of education, less troubled family background or the beginning of drug-taking only after puberty may all play a role.”

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