Scientists May Have Found a Way to Prevent Drug Relapse

A team of researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has recently identified what may be the brain circuit involved in a drug use relapse when an effective behavioral treatment for drug addiction (contingency management) is discontinued.

Contingency Management Needs to Change

Contingency management uses non-drug rewards, such as prizes, coupons for retail goods, or gift cards to encourage individuals under the program to remain drug-free. However, between 40 and 60 percent of those individuals will relapse when they no longer receive any alternative reward. Scientists believe that those who begin using drugs before their mid-20s (before their brain was fully developed) have a higher rate of relapse after treatment.

Looking For New Treatment Paths

Researchers used a model where rats voluntarily abstained from self-administration of drugs when given food rewards. In this model, the rats choose to abstain from methamphetamine or heroin when an alternative non-drug reward was available, but relapse to drug seeking when the alternative reward was removed. Using chemogenetic manipulations, electron microscopy, and other techniques, the scientists identified the anterior insular cortex-to-central amygdala nerve path as critical in the relapse process.

These findings provide higher insights into the brain mechanisms behind relapse after successful contingency management treatment and identify a potential target for relapse prevention using brain stimulation methods.

How This Could Help Teens (and the US)

Although teen drug use has declined in the past few years, that doesn’t mean that the trend will continue or that there aren’t any kids suffering. This discovery may well quickly lead to a way to prevent drug users to stay sober, preventing teens from growing into addicted adults. Besides cutting down on relapses and preventing lifelong addiction, it could also shrink the homeless population, bring in more jobs, lower crime rates in certain areas, and help ebb the free flow of opioids on the street.

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