Brain science advances could open path to new addiction treatments

Virginia Tech researcher
Warren Bickel, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, discusses how advances in brain science provide new insight into the opioid epidemic.

Advances in brain science that help explain why individuals are vulnerable to addiction may lead to new strategies to stem the opioid crisis, according to a group of addiction medicine experts publishing this week in a report for Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers, including Virginia Tech scientists Warren Bickel and Jeff Stein of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, reviewed various neuro-scientific findings about drug-use behavior, including the role of the brain pathways involved in pain, pleasure, decision-making, craving, and addiction.

Bickel, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and of psychology in the College of Science, and Stein, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and with the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, study the decision-making processes that support addiction.

"People who are drug dependent are focused on immediate gratification, which means they place a much lesser value on their future," Bickel said. "If you see addiction in that light, it helps explain why people cling to harmful behavior despite feedback from their health care providers, their loved ones, their employers, and even the police."

In a comment for the Association for Psychological Science, Antoine Bechara, lead author of the report and a psychological scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, "Addiction is a disease of decision-making; the majority of people have intact brain mechanisms of decision-making that keep them resilient to succumbing to an addiction. But a small percentage have a weakness in this mechanism and they are rendered more vulnerable."

Additional co-authors are Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan; and Jose Morόn, a professor of anesthesiology, neuroscience and psychiatry, and postdoctoral fellow Sidney B. Williams , both at Washington University in St. Louis.

The researchers say understanding individual neurobiological characteristics that impair self-control, reward-seeking, and decision-making could lead to new interventions for addiction.

“The report is timely and important and it was an honor to participate with leading figures in the addiction field,” said Bickel, who is the director of the research institute's Addiction Recovery Research Center and co-director of the Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors. “We all share a certain perspective that neuro-behavioral decision processes are key parts of these addiction processes, and understanding them can lead to novel interventions.”