Blocking the Effects of Stress
One of the major components of addictive behavior is stress. Individuals who have completed withdrawal stages and then followed through with treatment through various types of therapy often find that despite their preparations for handling multiple types of scenarios, stress can trigger a relapse.
Understanding how the brain reacts in moments of heightened stress is important for uncovering new treatments for addictive behaviors. While experts know that stress can be risky for recovering addicts, helping patients respond in healthy ways to stress is difficult.
A study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience helps broaden the understanding of the role stress plays in addictive behaviors. Dr. Lars Schwabe, a member of the faculty of Psychology at the University of Bochum in Germany, and colleagues examined how norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter that sends stress messages in the brain) can be affected by beta blockers.
The use of a beta blocker may help offset the effects of stress. This may help addicts, whose behavior can return to old habits when stress is introduced. When people are stressed, their behavior is frantic rather than goal-oriented.
An earlier study conducted by the researcher at Bochum had identified how stress alters behaviors when introduced during a learning assignment. The next step was to discover how to manipulate the responses to stress by introducing a beta blocker.
The researchers introduced a stressful scenario to half of the subjects, following a dose of the drug propranolol (a beta blocker) to a segment of the group that would be exposed to stress. The drug affects the brain by blocking norepinephrine from some receptors. The other participants were given a placebo.
The participants were given a computer task in which they were told that by clicking on particular icons, they would receive a reward of cocoa or orange juice. After the initial task was completed, the subjects were given unlimited oranges or chocolate pudding in order to weaken the value of the reward.
In the following exercise on the computer, those who had been given the beta blocker exhibited very different behaviors than those who had been given the placebo. Those who had the beta blocker were no longer motivated to choose the icons that led to orange juice or cocoa because they had already had their fill of oranges or chocolate pudding.
However, for those who had been given the placebo, their behavior was consistent with that before receiving unlimited oranges and pudding. Despite how much they had eaten after the first exercise, they reverted to habits that continued to choose icons connected with an orange juice or cocoa reward.