WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cocaine addicts can control their cravings by willpower alone, U.S. researchers reported on Monday in a study that suggests the right training may help abusers kick the habit.
They said their volunteers could control cravings even when they saw the typical cues that make people want to use the illegal stimulant, such as the sight of drug paraphernalia.
While scientists are working on vaccines or drugs that can help users avoid cocaine and other addictive drugs, the team at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York said their finding suggests a non-drug approach may help too.
And it may translate to other problems related to cravings or addictive behavior, such as gambling or overeating.
“We know from previous studies that drug cues can trigger dramatic changes in the brain that are linked to a strong craving response,” Gene-Jack Wang, who worked on the study, said in a statement.
“This study provides the first evidence that cocaine abusers retain some ability to cognitively inhibit their craving responses to drug-related cues.”
The researchers used a brain-scanning technique called positron emission tomography or PET to watch the areas of the brain associated with drug craving in 24 cocaine users.
They were asked to watch a video showing people buying, preparing and smoking crack cocaine and randomly asked to try to resist feeling their own cravings.
The scientists monitored the volunteers’ heart rate and blood pressure and asked them to describe their cravings during the scans. As expected, the video triggered brain activity in several brain regions and raised heart rate and blood pressure.
But when asked to control this craving, the patients were in general able to do so and the PET scans showed dramatic decreases in the signals from brain regions involved in experiencing and anticipating rewards, as well as in a part of the brain that determines the significance of a stimulus.
“Many current drug treatment programs help addicted individuals predict when and where they might be exposed to drug cues so that they can avoid such situations,” Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund the study, said in a statement.
“While this is a very useful strategy, in real-world situations, cues may come up in unexpected ways. Our findings suggest that a clinical strategy that trains cocaine abusers to exert greater cognitive control could help them selectively inhibit the craving response whenever and wherever drug cues are encountered, whether expectedly or unexpectedly.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman