In the research on substance use (SUD), reward and risk processing has been studied at length. Experts believe that people with addictions to drugs and alcohol may have distorted reward processes that make them more susceptible to substance use. In fact, risk/reward is often the center of drug and alcohol treatment programs. People who are trying to overcome these addictions may be less able to control the desire for rewards and disregard risks associated with drug and alcohol use, thus making them more vulnerable to continued use.
To determine how marijuana use affects this process, Francesca M. Filbey of the Center for Brain Health and School of Behavioral and Brain Science at the University of Texas recently conducted a study comparing the risk/reward processes of 59 individuals with heavy marijuana use histories (MJ) to the processes of 27 non-marijuana-using control participants (CON). Using monetary delay incentive tasks, Filbey was able to assess the varying degrees of sensitivity to reward and risk in the participants.
She found that the MJ participants had higher sensitivity to positive reinforcement and rewards than to negative rewards, although they were still more sensitive to negative rewards than the CON participants. This suggests that people who use marijuana may believe that the reward of using outweighs the risk. Also, for those who experience withdrawal, the fear and avoidance that comes from negative reinforcement (withdrawal) may cause users to choose the reward of using as a method to avoid the negative feelings associated with withdrawal symptoms.
In fact, Filbey found that the participants with the highest levels of withdrawal symptoms had the lowest amygdala response, which is directly influential of fear and avoidance. Thus, these participants were numb not only to reward, but also to fear and risk associated with using. Overall, these findings show that marijuana users in this study had heightened sensitivity to rewards and diminished sensitivity to negative stimuli when compared to control participants. Filbey added, “These oppositional forces may then work together to drive continued drug use and elevate risk for relapse.”
Filbey, F.M., Dunlop, J., Myers, U.S. (2013). Neural Effects of Positive and Negative Incentives during Marijuana Withdrawal. PLoS ONE 8(5): e61470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061470
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