Last week, a group of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California announced that they received two generous grants totaled at $3.8 million that would go toward research investigating the natural brain mechanisms that help prevent drug and alcohol relapse. The study is scheduled to take place over a 5 year period and will hopefully provide important insight into the workings of these fascinating and potentially valuable brain mechanisms.
The Team and It’s Goals
The team that will be working on the research is headed by a professor of molecular and cellular neuroscience at the Scripps Institute. Nobuyoshi Suto, who was recently appointed to the position of assistant professor, spoke to the media last week about the details of the research and what his team hoped to accomplish. Suto said that relapses are still the biggest threat to a successful recovery, even among those who have been sober for decades.
He hopes that the research will give them a better understanding of how brain mechanisms work to suppress relapses, so that in the future scientists may be able to develop a drug that effectively mimics those mechanisms. Medication that could work at a chemical level to help prevent a relapse would be a valuable tool for someone at a high risk of relapse, or anyone else in recovery. Suto’s team at the Scripps Institute received a $2.1 million grant from The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, along with an additional award of $1.7 million from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study by Suto’s team will expand greatly on previous research done on these same brain mechanisms.
What We Know About the Brain’s Ability to Fight Against Relapse
Studies done on the brain’s ability to fight a relapse revealed that external stimuli play an important role in the process. These kinds of stimuli include the smell of alcohol or being around drug paraphernalia. The stimuli signal to the brain that drugs or alcohol are nearby by activating certain neurons, neurochemicals, and circuits within the brain. The result of this type of neurological reaction is often a relapse. The brain also responds in a similar way to stimuli that signal the unavailability of drugs or alcohol. The researchers are very interested in these kinds of stimuli and the reactions that they trigger for the latest study. They hope to learn more about the way the brain works to inhibit certain behaviors, as well as delve deeper into finding new ways to help prevent relapses.
Previous studies done by Suto’s team on laboratory rats show that the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain plays a prominent role in activating the neurons that are involved in inhibiting behavior. This area of the brain is known for being involved in all types of decision making processes. Studies done on humans have provided supporting evidence to the important role of the prefrontal medial cortex in suppressing cravings and curbing behavior. That study showed a high amount of activity in the medial cortex when individuals were exposed to stimuli signaling drugs or alcohol, and then told to suppress their craving for the substances.
The study at the Scripps Institute will go into further depth about how these neurological reactions take place to effectively suppress strong cravings.The results should help future addiction treatment specialists employ more effective strategies for preventing relapses from occurring.
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