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Brain Changes Blamed In Stimulant Users Who Relapse

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Brain Changes Blamed In Stimulant Users Who Relapse

Brain Changes Blamed In Stimulant Users Who Relapse

People who experience serious problems with the non-addicted abuse of stimulant drugs (e.g., amphetamine, cocaine and methamphetamine) and people addicted to stimulant drugs typically qualify for a diagnosis called stimulant use disorder. After entering treatment for their problems, some individuals with this disorder successfully remain abstinent from stimulant use, while others relapse back into active stimulant intake.

In a study published in June 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from a U.S. university and two private institutions compared the brain functions of people with stimulant use disorder who remain abstinent to the brain functions of people with the disorder who relapse.

Stimulant Use Disorder

Brain Changes In Stimulant Users Who Relapse | Stimulant Use DisorderStimulants are powerful substances that substantially speed up activity in the nerve cells that power the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain), and thereby trigger a speedup in key body functions such as the baseline heart rate and breathing rate. The brain changes associated with stimulant use include the onset of an intense sensation called euphoria, which emanates from a part of the brain commonly referred to as the pleasure center.

Some stimulant users become involved in a pattern of abuse when they try to recreate euphoric feelings in their pleasure centers, while others establish a pattern of abuse based on a misguided desire to do such things as increase alertness or improve academic performance.

Over time, habitual stimulant abusers may become stimulant addicts when their brains undergo long-term changes that produce physical dependence, as well recurring drug cravings, loss of control over stimulant intake or a number of other potential symptoms.

The stimulant use disorder diagnosis applies to non-addicted abusers who fall into a dysfunctional pattern of stimulant-related behavior, as well as to people affected by physical stimulant dependence and addiction. The American Psychiatric Association officially established this diagnosis in 2013 as a specific form of a larger illness classification called substance use disorder. Stimulant use disorder replaces independent diagnoses for both stimulant abuse and stimulant addiction. This replacement occurred because current evidence strongly supports a high degree of overlap for symptoms of abuse and addiction in affected stimulant users.

Stimulant Relapse

People in treatment for stimulant abuse/addiction need time to detoxify from active drug use and recover from the long-term changes in their normal brain function. A chief obstacle to this process is the continuing presence of strong urges to consume more of a given stimulant. Typically, these urges are intensified by cues in the everyday environment that recovering stimulant users have previously learned to associate with drug intake. Even in people who ultimately recover and establish a long-term abstinent lifestyle, the persistence of drug-using urges can trigger a relapse either during or after treatment. Relapses are a fairly common occurrence, and addiction specialists typically take them into account when devising treatment strategies for their patients/clients.

Are There Brain Differences In Those Who Relapse On Stimulants?

Researchers from the University of Minnesota, the Hazelden Foundation and a private psychiatric practice used modern imaging technology to compare the brain functions of people who relapse back into stimulant use during or after treatment to the brain functions of people who avoid stimulant use during or after treatment. All told, 18 people diagnosed with substance use disorder took part in the study, as did a second group of 15 people not affected by any form of substance abuse. The researchers performed two sets of brain scans on all of these individuals, and followed up half a year later to see which stimulant users had relapsed back into drug use.

With the advantage of hindsight, the researchers concluded that, at the initial bran scan, the participants who eventually relapsed had far more profound changes in the function of parts of the brain responsible for the critical tasks of maintaining emotional control and regulating levels of pleasure and reward. The participants who relapsed also gradually developed a reduced level of activity in these brain areas in the early stages of their recovery.

The study’s authors believe that the decline in brain function found in the participants who ultimately relapsed back into drug use may serve generally as a physical sign of heightened risks for relapse in recovering stimulant users.

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