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Intellectual Stimulation A Defense Against Addiction?

A new study recently conducted by the University Of California, Berkely challenges the assumption that addiction is hard-wired in the brain. In short – the study indicated that even a short time spent in a stimulating learning environment could rewire the brain’s reward system and protect it against cocaine addiction. If correct, this would negate any assumption that addiction is a hereditary destiny or foregone conclusion.

Let’s have a look at the actual study: Scientists at Berkely tracked the cocaine cravings of around 70 adult mice. They noticed that those mice that had a daily routine that included exploration of their environment and learning how to find hidden and tasty treats were less likely than their enrichment-deprived neighbors to seek out the “cocaine chamber.” Those mice who’s activities and diets were artificially restricted or were not intellectually challenged were eager to return to the source of their cocaine “fix.”

A quote from the actual study report: “We have compelling behavioral evidence that self-directed exploration and learning altered their reward systems so that when cocaine was experienced it made less of an impact on their brain,” said Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper just published in the journal, Neuropharmacology.

Studies previous to this have often found that poverty, trauma, mental illness and other environmental and physiological factors can alter the brain’s naturally occurring reward circuitry and lead to higher instances of substance abuse in individuals.

Quoting Dr Wilbrecht again: “Our data are exciting because they suggest that positive learning experiences, through education or play in a structured environment, could sculpt and develop brain circuits to build resilience in at-risk individuals, and that even brief cognitive interventions may be somewhat protective and last a relatively long time,” Wilbrecht said.

From this study, the results suggest that that introverted, anti-social, stimulation-deprived mental and physical environments may be associated with an increased vulnerability to drug seeking behavior. The study also suggests that mentally and socially stimulating environments offer at least some protection against addiction.

Of course, these results come as no surprise to those who work in the field of addiction on a daily basis. In fact, clients who successfully complete the detox and primary care phases of drug and alcohol rehab are encouraged to seek stimulating and socially supportive aftercare environments to encourage and increase the likelihood of long-term and permanent sobriety.

The study also suggests that the same would apply as a preventative measure with young people who should be encouraged to seek out healthy and stimulating activities rather than being left in a deprived environment with too much time on their hands. That old adage that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” may have been based on simple country wisdom that are now being validated by science.

Reference:

University of California – Berkeley. “Intellectual pursuits may buffer brain against addiction: Study finds that mice who were intellectually stimulated were less likely to seek a cocaine high.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 July 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150714131554.htm>.
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