Neurological processes have long been thought to impact addictive tendencies and behaviors. Areas of the brain that are referred to as “grey matter” are responsible for numerous cognitive and executive functions, including decision making, conflict management, emotional response, reward appraisal, and impulsivity. Therefore, grey matter is critical to many neurological components that influence risk taking. For people with cocaine addiction, risk taking and relapse rates are high. In fact, long-term success rates for abstinence interventions are very low. Experts say that chronic cocaine use can negatively affect neurological elements and expedite grey matter decreases that naturally occur with age. But until now, how these grey matter changes affect abstinence, and whether those changes are predictive or consequential of abstinence, has yet to be explored.
In a recent study, Colm G. Connolly of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco looked at changes in grey matter in a sample of cocaine users with short- and long-term abstinence in the hopes of identifying neurological processes that could be targeted in interventions. Connolly compared grey matter in participants with less than 102 weeks of abstinence to the grey matter in participants with anywhere from three months to 24 years of abstinence and found that grey matter volumes were higher in individuals with longer periods of abstinence. Further, Connolly was able to show that length of cocaine use was directly related to decreases in grey matter.
When Connolly compared control participants with no drug use history to those participants who abstained, he found that grey matter levels became relatively equal at 35 weeks of abstinence. After 35 weeks, the abstinent participants actually had larger volumes of grey matter than the control participants. Although this discovery could not be fully explored in this study, it suggests that grey matter is malleable and that neurological processes are directly involved in the process of recovery and not merely a byproduct of abstinence. Connolly added, “Specifically, the results suggest that regions critical to behavioral control may be important to prolonged, successful, abstinence.”
Connolly CG, Bell RP, Foxe JJ, Garavan H (2013) “Dissociated Grey Matter Changes with Prolonged Addiction and Extended Abstinence in Cocaine Users.” PLoS ONE 8(3): e59645. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059645
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