Increased brain activity predicts future onset of substance use

April 18, 2013, Oregon Research Institute

Do people get caught in the cycle of overeating and drug addiction because their brain reward centers are over-active causing them to experience greater cravings for food or drugs? In a unique prospective study Oregon Research Institute (ORI) senior scientist Eric Stice, Ph.D., and colleagues tested this theory, called the reward surfeit model. The results indicated that elevated responsivity of reward regions in the brain increased the risk for future substance use, which has never been tested before prospectively with humans. Paradoxically, results also provide evidence that even a limited history of substance use was related to less responsivity in the reward circuitry, as has been suggested by experiments with animals. The research appears in the May 1, 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry.

In a novel study using functional (fMRI) Stice's team tested whether individual differences in reward region responsivity predicted overweight/obesity onset among initially healthy weight adolescents and substance use onset among initially abstinent adolescents. The to food and monetary reward was measured in 162 adolescents. Body fat and substance use were assessed at the time of the fMRI and again one year later.

"The findings are important because this is the first test of whether atypical responsivity of reward circuitry increases risk for substance use," says Dr. Stice. "Although numerous researchers have suggested that reduced responsivity is a vulnerability factor for substance use, this theory was based entirely on cross-sectional studies comparing substance abusing individuals to healthy controls; no studies have tested this thesis with prospective data."

Investigators examined the extent to which reward circuitry (e.g., the striatum) was activated in response to receipt and anticipated receipt of money. Monetary reward is a general reinforcer and has been used frequently to assess reward sensitivity. The team also used another paradigm to assess brain activation in response to the individual's consumption and anticipated consumption of chocolate milkshake. Results showed that greater activation in the during monetary reward receipt at baseline predicted future substance use onset over a 1-year follow-up.

Noteworthy was that adolescents who had already begun using substances showed less striatal response to monetary reward. This finding provides the first evidence that even a relatively short period of moderate substance use might reduce reward region responsivity to a general reinforcer.

"The implications are that the more individuals use psychoactive substances, the less responsive they will be to rewarding experiences, meaning that they may derive less reinforcement from other pursuits, such as interpersonal relationships, hobbies, and school work. This may contribute to the escalating spiral of drug use that characterizes substance use disorders," commented Stice.

Although the investigators had expected parallel neural predictors of future onset of overweight during exposure to receipt and anticipated receipt of a palatable food, no significant effects emerged. It is possible that these effects are weaker and that a longer follow-up period will be necessary to better differentiate who will gain weight and who will remain at a healthy weight.

Explore further: Brain circuitry is different for women with anorexia and obesity

Related Stories

Brain circuitry is different for women with anorexia and obesity

May 14, 2012
Why does one person become anorexic and another obese? A study recently published by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher shows that reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized ...

Reward sensitivity increases food 'wanting' following television 'junk food' commercials

July 10, 2012
Research to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), the foremost society for research into all aspects of eating and drinking behavior, sought to investigate personality ...

Recommended for you

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.