Thursday, September 17, 2015

How Stroke Research is Advancing the Science of Addiction

by Gabriella Pinto-Coelho

A pair of studies suggests that the insular cortex, a specific region of the brain, may play a central role in addiction. Scientists discovered this groundbreaking connection after studying smokers who suffered a stroke in this region. After the stroke, individuals were far more likely to quit smoking (70% vs. 27%) and experienced fewer and less intense withdrawal symptoms as compared to smokers who suffered strokes in other areas of the brain.

Studies also suggest that the insular cortex may play a role in the emotional process that facilitates drug and tobacco use, including conscious desires and cravings. The insular cortex is understood to play a variety of diverse functions linked to emotion and maintaining the body’s equilibrium. Functional MRIs have demonstrated the insular cortex’s role in experiences of pain, anger, fear, disgust, happiness, and sadness.

Most research on the role of the brain in addiction has shown that the brain’s “reward pathway” plays the primary role in addiction. This reward pathway involves several parts of the brain and is responsible for flooding the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter, when activated by stimuli such as drugs. 

While it is certain that this pathway plays a major role in addiction, this new research on stroke patients is illuminating the possibility that there are other brain structures also at play in the complex and devastating process of addiction. 

A more robust understanding of the mechanisms of addiction should give hope to both patients and clinicians - it offers promise toward creating more effective treatments and therefore a clearer road to recovery.

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