Intellectual pursuits may protect against drug addiction

New York: While deprivation may make us more susceptible to drug addiction, even a short time spent in a stimulating learning environment can rewire the brain’s reward system and buffer it against drug dependence, says a study.

The findings challenge the idea that addiction is hardwired in the brain.

“Overall, the data suggest that deprivation may confer vulnerability to drug seeking behaviour and that brief interventions may promote long-term resilience,” said senior study author Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley in the US.

In the study published in the journal Neuropharmacology, scientists tracked cocaine cravings in more than 70 adult male mice and found that those rodents who received a nine-day cognitive training programme were less likely than their counterparts to seek solace in a chamber where they had been given cocaine.

The training programme included exploration, learning and finding hidden tasty morsels.

“We have compelling behavioural 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,” Wilbrecht said.

By contrast, mice who were not intellectually challenged and/or whose activities and diets were restricted, were eager to return to the quarters where they had been injected with cocaine.

Drug abuse and addiction rank among the world’s more costly, destructive and seemingly insurmountable problems.

Previous studies have found that poverty, trauma, mental illness and other environmental and physiological stressors can alter the brain’s reward circuitry and make us more susceptible to substance abuse.

“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.