Relapse Prevention: Study May Have Found Key to Preventing Stress From Triggering Relapse
For the person who has fought back against drug addiction and has been walking the road of recovery, stress can pose a dangerous threat. For many, the stress of struggling to find work, rebuild relationships, or a sudden loss through death can be enough to trigger a return to using drugs. Stress is a powerful force for people without an addiction history, but when there has been a pattern of soothing stress with substances, the temptation to do so again when the stress temperature rises is great. A recent National Institutes of Health-funded study may have discovered the key to preventing stress from triggering that kind of relapse.
The grant-funded study was actually a partnership between researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University. The investigation provides a clear outline for the sequence of events within the brain leading up to a stress-induced drug relapse. The study debunked prior hypotheses about the relapse pathway and uncovered evidence that the part of the brain connected to meeting basic needs (the VTA) was pivotally involved.
The study employed rats with a history of cocaine addiction but who were not presently addicted. Some of the rats were treated with a chemical (nor-BNI) that inhibits certain VTA receptors (known as kappa opioid receptors), while the other group of rats did not receive the treatment. Next, all of the rats were made to undergo five minutes of stress-inducing exercise. Observation showed that the treated rats did not revert to cocaine use even after being stressed. The non-treated rats did go back to cocaine.
When we meet our body’s essential needs such as eating and drinking, the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that rewards our behavior with a sense of pleasure. At the same time, healthy brains also release GABA, which modulates dopamine release. Drugs keep GABA from doing their job of controlling the dopamine flow and hence drug use produces an oversized rush of good feelings.
Relapse Prevention with Stress Prevention
In this study, researchers first demonstrated that stressors prevent GABA from slowing down dopamine release. This explains how stress can be a preamble to drug relapse. In the presence of stress, the proper amounts of reward chemicals are disordered. Pleasurable activities become inordinately pleasurable. However, the study team showed that by introducing nor-BNI into the VTA area of the brain, the dopamine controls remained in place even during periods of stress.
By honing-in on the neural underpinnings of a stress-caused relapse, these scientists may have found a way to interrupt the chain reactions that trigger a return to drug use. The study could prove to be a major leap forward toward creating a targeted medication that could remove a domino from the stack and prevent the inevitable result.
Finding a rehab that has not only a great rehabilitation program but a great aftercare program is another way to help prevent relapse. Read Choosing the Right Drug Rehab for Your Loved One to learn more.