1. Study suggests brain scans may reveal most effective anti-drug messages

    December 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    What if you could look into the brains of potential drug abusers and see what messages would be most likely to persuade them to “just say no?”

    That’s the ultimate goal of researchers whose new study scanned the brains of people while they watched anti-drug public service announcements (PSAs).

    The results provided new insights into how people at risk of drug use process anti-drug messages — and which messages they find most persuasive, said Richard Huskey, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

    “It is very difficult to ask potential drug users which anti-drug PSAs work best. They are generally very defensive and are apt to say that none of the messages is convincing,” Huskey said.

    “Even though they often say that none of the anti-drug messages are effective, their brains tell a different story.”

    Huskey conducted the study with J. Michael Mangus and René Weber, colleagues from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he received his doctoral degree, and Benjamin Turner of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

    The study appears in the December 2017 issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

    For the study, 28 students at UCSB watched 32 real 30-second anti-drug PSAs while in an fMRI scanner. Half were at high risk of drug use and half were at low risk. Drug use risk was assessed with a validated self-report measure that the students had completed earlier.

    Later, the participants rated each PSA on how strong its arguments against drug use were and on “perceived message sensation value” — how exciting the video was and how much it aroused the emotions and senses.

    In analyzing the fMRI scans, the researchers looked specifically at connectivity patterns between different parts of the brain while the anti-drug messages played.

    The researchers then took the results from these 28 fMRI participants and used them to predict how two large samples of people who weren’t scanned, but who did watch the same 32 PSAs, would rate the effectiveness of the messages. One group was 599 college students and the other was a nationally representative sample of 601 adolescents in the United States. These larger groups also included people who were at high risk for drug use and low risk.

    Results showed that the self-report data alone from the high-risk fMRI participants couldn’t accurately predict if the larger groups of high-risk participants would say that any individual PSA was effective.

    That’s not surprising, Huskey said, since drug users often either misidentify which messages are most effective or say that all the messages were equally ineffective.

    But when the researchers combined the self-report data from the high-risk fMRI participants with their brain scan data, they could do a much better job at predicting which PSAs the larger groups of at-risk participants would find persuasive.

    Specifically, they found that fMRI-measured connectivity between two parts of the brain — the middle frontal gyrus and the superior parietal lobe — significantly improved the accuracy in predicting which PSAs were most effective with this at-risk group.

    But the fMRI scans among low-risk subjects didn’t help improve predictions of which videos participants would find most effective.

    “That’s because low-risk subjects are accurately telling us which messages are most effective with them,” Huskey said.

    “We don’t need fancy technology to figure out which messages work best for people who are at low risk — we can just ask them.”

    This study alone can’t say exactly which messages will work with all people at risk of abusing drugs, Huskey said. In fact, the results suggest that there may be different types of drug users who will respond to different types of messages.

    The important point is that “we found neural evidence that people at risk for drug use are processing these anti-drug messages differently than other viewers,” he said.

    “Some of the follow-up work we’re doing is to better understand the various dimensions that put people at risk of using drugs so we can tailor messages in a more targeted way. This is just the first step in figuring out how to design messages that will be effective in discouraging drug use in these high-risk people.”


  2. Study looks at motivations behind recreational drug usage

    December 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the James Cook University press release:

    A researcher from James Cook University in Queensland has been investigating why Australians are among the top users of illegal drugs in the world — and has uncovered some revealing new facts about the motivations of recreational drug users.

    Professor David Plummer led a study by JCU and Griffith University that interviewed drug users.

    “We weren’t satisfied enough work had been done to explain why there was such a high level of drug use in Australia and we decided to do smaller in-depth studies to try and understand some of the drivers,” he said.

    Research shows almost 40% of Australians aged 15 years and over have used one or more illicit drugs at some stage in their life, and approximately 17% within the past 12 months.

    The research team concentrated on recreational drug users rather than habitual users.

    “We found recreational users viewed themselves as different from people who are habitual users. The recreational drug users used drugs because they valued the benefits that specific drugs seemed to offer while considering the risks to be manageable, worthwhile and/or minimal,” said Professor Plummer.

    The team identified two important drivers they believe lead people to take up recreational drug use: social networking and performance enhancement.

    “A common reason is performance enhancement. Not only in the physical sense of giving users greater stamina but also in making them feel more attractive and more sociable,” said Professor Plummer.

    He said the popular view of all drug users as anti-social loners existing on the margins of society was wrong, with social networking another powerful driver of recreational drug use.

    “Recreational users take full advantage of social networks. They report their drug use as being highly social in terms of face-to-face encounters — recreational drugs are integral to the party scene and are often used to lubricate social interactions. They also depend on complex social networks for their distribution and use.”

    Professor Plummer said the findings presented a challenge for agencies trying to warn recreational users about the underappreciated dangers of illicit drug use.

    “We have to rethink the preoccupation in anti-drug strategies with negative outcomes, as recreational users see their risks as different from those of habitual users. Current anti-drug campaigns seem to be disconnected from the actual experience of recreational drug users and this may result in a credibility gap.”


  3. Study suggests smartphone addiction creates imbalance in brain

    December 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Radiological Society of North America press release:

    Researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).


  4. Study suggests neuron-pruning drug may nudge mice away from habit-driven behaviors when combined with retraining

    by Ashley

    From the Emory Health Sciences press release:

    A drug that stimulates neuron pruning can nudge mice away from habit-driven behaviors when combined with retraining, neuroscientists have found.

    The results were published online on November 30 by Nature Communications.

    The drug fasudil, approved in Japan for cerebral vasospasm and stroke, inhibits an enzyme that stabilizes cells’ internal skeletons. The researchers suggest that fasudil or similar compounds could be effective tools for facilitating the treatment of drug abuse and preventing relapse.

    A large fraction of the actions people perform each day come from habits, not from deliberate decision making. Going on auto-pilot can free up attention for new things, but it can also be detrimental, in the case of drug abuse and drug-seeking behavior, says lead author Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

    “Some habits are adaptive — for example, turning off a light when you exit a room — but others can be maladaptive, for example in the case of habitual drug use. We wanted to try to figure out a way to help ‘break’ habits, particularly those related to the highly-addictive drug cocaine,” says Gourley.

    Gourley and former graduate students Andrew Swanson, PhD and Lauren Depoy, PhD tested fasudil in situations where they had trained mice to poke their noses in two chambers, based on rewards of both food and cocaine. Then the researchers changed the rules of the game. The mice had to learn something new, in terms of where to poke their noses to get the reward.

    In particular, the mice could now only get a reward from one chamber instead of both. Fasudil helped the mice adjust and display “goal-directed” behavior, rather than their previous habit-based behavior.

    In addition, the researchers trained the mice to supply themselves a sweet cocaine solution. Then they changed the nature of that experience: the cocaine was paired with lithium chloride, which made the mice feel sick. Fasudil treatment nudged the mice to give themselves less cocaine afterwards, rather than continuing to respond habitually. The scientists envision this as modeling negative experiences associated with cocaine use in humans.

    “Humans may seek treatment due to the negative consequences of cocaine abuse, but many people still relapse. We’re trying to strengthen the goal of abstaining from drug taking,” says Gourley.

    The researchers conducted additional experiments that revealed that fasudil didn’t make cocaine itself less pleasurable, but was specifically modifying the habit process. Also, fasudil did not affect other forms of decision making.

    Un-learning of habits involves remodeling connections made by cells in the brain. In the mouse retraining experiments, the way that fasudil seems to work is that it promotes the pruning of dendritic spines. Dendritic spines are structures that help neurons communicate and embody the strength of connections between them.

    Fasudil inhibits Rho kinase, which stabilizes F-actin, a major component of cells’ internal skeletons. Thus, it loosens up cell structures. And in mice, fasudil appears to slightly reduce the density of dendritic spines in a region of the brain that is important for learning new behaviors.

    “In this context, we imagine that fasudil is optimizing signal-to-noise, so to speak, allowing this brain region to efficiently guide decision making,” says Gourley.

    When fasudil is given to the mice a day after training, no changes in spine density are seen, indicating that it must be paired with new learning to have that effect.

    Some caution is order, because overactive synaptic pruning is proposed to play roles in Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. In their paper, the authors conclude:

    Pairing Rho kinase inhibitors with cognitive behavioral therapy in humans could be an effective pharmacological adjunct to reduce the rate of relapse… Given its favorable safety profile and our evidence that it can mitigate cocaine self-administration, fasudil is a strong candidate, with the caveats that we envision it administered as an adjunct to behavioral therapy and potentially during early phases of drug withdrawal.


  5. Study examines screen time addiction in youth

    December 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    It’s a familiar sight in the majority of young families: young children bent over a screen for hours, texting or gaming, lost in a digital world.

    Many parents worry, how much screen time is too much?

    But a recent study found that may be the wrong question. The findings suggest that how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction. This held true after researchers controlled for screen time.

    “Typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy,” said lead author Sarah Domoff, who did the research while a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development.

    “Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.”

    Much research exists on adolescents and screen use, but Domoff said that to her knowledge this is the first tool in the United States that measures screen media addiction in children ages 4-11. She believes it will be a valuable tool for parents, clinicians and researchers.

    Some of the warning signs include: if screen time interferes with daily activities, causes conflict for the child or in the family, or is the only activity that brings the child joy.

    Kids who use media in unhealthy ways have problems with relationships, conduct and other emotional symptoms, Domoff said. The study didn’t examine whether the emotional and behavior problems or the media addiction came first.

    Domoff, a research faculty affiliate at U-M’s Center for Human Growth and Development, is now an assistant professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. Other study authors include: U-M’s Kristen Harrison, Ashley Gearhardt, Julie Lumeng and Alison Miller; and Douglas Gentile of Iowa State State University.


  6. Rodent model of addiction challenges traditional view of how addiction is sustained

    December 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Drug addiction may not require a habitual relationship with a substance, suggests findings from a new model of cocaine administration in rats that better captures the human experience of obtaining and using drugs. The research, published in JNeurosci, represents a step towards a translational animal model of addiction that challenges widely held views about drug users.

    Much of what we know about the neurobiology of addiction comes from studies that require animals to perform a repeated behavior, such as a lever-press or nose-poke, to gain access to a drug. These behaviors typically become habits controlled by the dorsal striatum, leaving open the question of whether more complex behaviors, like the flexible problem-solving that humans use to navigate drug dealing, can also lead to addiction.

    Diverging from conventional animal models of addiction, Bryan Singer and colleagues instead required male rats to solve a new, increasingly difficult puzzle each day in order to receive a cocaine reward. This model still produced symptoms of substance use disorders in the rats. Drug-seeking behavior engaged the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in goal-directed behavior, throughout the experiment. The authors did not observe a shift in dopamine signaling to the dorsal striatum, which is thought to underlie the transition from learned behavior to habit, suggesting that the rats continued to rely on ingenuity to sustain their addiction.


  7. Study examines relationship between traumatic brain injury and alcohol use

    November 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    Head injury, which often damages brain regions overlapping with those involved in addictive behaviors, does not worsen drinking behavior in people with heavy alcohol use, according to a new study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. The study, led by Dr. Andrew Mayer of the Mind Research Network and University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also found that combining head injury with heavy alcohol use did not further alter the structure or function of the brain.

    “Individuals who consume too much alcohol are prone to experience more accidents as a result of their intoxication,” said Dr. Mayer. Importantly, he added, heavy alcohol use and traumatic brain injury (TBI) affect similar regions of the brain. This has led researchers to think that the common combination of head injury and heavy drinking may interact to worsen the brain damage already caused by chronic alcohol exposure.

    The study compared people with a recent history of heavy alcohol use and TBI with a control group carefully matched on lifetime history of alcohol exposure. Mayer and colleagues found the opposite of what they expected — heavy drinkers with a history of a TBI did not have worse drinking behavior, such as how often and how much they drank, compared with drinkers without a history of TBI.

    The researchers also used imaging techniques to measure the structure of the brain and its activity when the participants were given a taste of their favorite drink. “On average, the brains of the two groups were similar both in terms of the amount of lost tissue, as well as how each person’s brain responded to their favorite drink,” said Dr. Mayer, suggesting that TBI does not further damage brain circuitry in heavy drinkers.

    “The observation that the participants with TBI did not have greater neurocircuitry dysfunction than those without TBI might translate into greater therapeutic optimism for the treatment of individuals with a combination of TBI plus heavy drinking histories,” said Dr. Cameron Carter, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.


  8. Higher estrogen levels linked to increased alcohol sensitivity in brain’s ‘reward center’

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Chicago press release:

    The reward center of the brain is much more attuned to the pleasurable effects of alcohol when estrogen levels are elevated, an effect that may underlie the development of addiction in women, according to a study on mice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

    Led by Amy Lasek, assistant professor of psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine, researchers found that neurons in a region of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA (also known as the “reward center”), fired most rapidly in response to alcohol when their estrogen levels were high. This response, according to their findings published online in the journal PLOS ONE, is mediated through receptors on dopamine-emitting neurons in the VTA.

    “When estrogen levels are higher, alcohol is much more rewarding,” said Lasek, who is the corresponding author on the paper and a researcher in the UIC Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics. “Women may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol or more likely to overindulge during certain stages of their cycle when estrogen levels are higher, or may be more likely to seek out alcohol during those stages.”

    Studies indicate that gender differences in psychiatric disorders, including addiction, are influenced by estrogen, one of the primary female sex hormones. Women are more likely to exhibit greater escalation of abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and are more prone to relapse in response to stress and anxiety.

    The VTA helps evaluate whether something is valuable or good. When neurons in this area of the brain are stimulated, they release dopamine — a powerful neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of wellness — and, in large doses, euphoria. When something good is encountered — for example, chocolate — the neurons in the VTA fire more rapidly, enforcing reward circuitry that encodes the idea that chocolate is enjoyable and something to be sought out. Over time, the VTA neurons fire more quickly at the sight, or even thought of, chocolate, explained Lasek. In addiction, VTA neurons are tuned into drugs of abuse, and fire more quickly in relation to consuming or even thinking about drugs, driving the person to seek them out — often at the expense of their own health, family, friends and jobs.

    Many animal studies have shown that alcohol increases the firing of dopamine-sensitive neurons in the VTA, but little is known about exactly why this occurs.

    Lasek and her colleagues examined the relationship between estrogen, alcohol and the VTA in female mice. They used naturally cycling mice that were allowed to go through their normal estrous cycles, akin to the menstrual cycle in women.

    Mice were evaluated to determine when they entered diestrus — the phase in the estrous cycle when estrogen levels are close to their peak.

    “In mice in diestrus, estrogen levels increase to about 10 times higher than they are in estrus, the phase in which ovulation occurs and estrogen levels drop,” Lasek said.

    VTAs were taken from mice in both estrus and diestrus and kept alive in special chambers. Electrodes recorded the activity of individual dopamine-sensitive neurons in the VTA. Next, the researchers added alcohol to the chamber. Activity increased twice as much in neurons from mice in diestrus compared to the response of neurons from mice in estrus.

    Lasek and her colleagues then blocked estrogen receptors on dopamine-sensitive neurons in VTA in mice in estrus and diestrus. With the blocker present, the response to alcohol in neurons from mice in diestrus was significantly lower compared with neurons where estrogen receptors remained functional. The estrogen receptor blocker reduced the alcohol response to levels seen in mice in estrus. The responses to alcohol in neurons from mice in estrus were unaffected by the estrogen receptor blocker.

    “The increased reward response to alcohol we see when estrogen levels are high is mediated through receptors for estrogen in the VTA,” said Mark Brodie, professor of physiology and biophysics in the UIC College of Medicine and a co-author on the paper.

    Lasek believes that the increased sensitivity to alcohol in the VTA when estrogen levels peak may play a significant role in the development of addiction in women.

    “We already know that binge drinking can lead to lasting changes in the brain, and in women, those changes may be faster and more significant due to the interaction we see between alcohol, the VTA and estrogen,” Lasek said. “Binge drinking can increase the risk of developing alcoholism, so women need to be careful about how much alcohol they drink. They should be aware that they may sometimes inadvertently over-consume alcohol because the area of the brain involved in alcohol reward is responding very strongly.”


  9. Study suggests frequent alcohol drinking kills new brain cells in adults, females are more vulnerable

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston  press release:

    Researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston recently discovered that alcohol killed the stem cells residing in adult mouse brains. Because the brain stems cells create new nerve cells and are important to maintaining normal cognitive function, this study possibly opens a door to combating chronic alcoholism.

    The researchers also found that brain stem cells in key brain regions of adult mice respond differently to alcohol exposure, and they show for the first time that these changes are different for females and males. The findings are available in Stem Cell Reports.

    Chronic alcohol abuse can cause severe brain damage and neurodegeneration. Scientists once believed that the number of nerve cells in the adult brain was fixed early in life and the best way to treat alcohol-induced brain damage was to protect the remaining nerve cells.

    “The discovery that the adult brain produces stem cells that create new nerve cells provides a new way of approaching the problem of alcohol-related changes in the brain,” said Dr. Ping Wu, UTMB professor in the department of neuroscience and cell biology. “However, before the new approaches can be developed, we need to understand how alcohol impacts the brain stem cells at different stages in their growth, in different brain regions and in the brains of both males and females.”

    In the study, Wu and her colleagues used a cutting-edge technique that allows them to tag brain stem cells and observe how they migrate and develop into specialized nerve cells over time to study the impact of long-term alcohol consumption on them.

    Wu said that chronic alcohol drinking killed most brain stem cells and reduced the production and development of new nerve cells.

    The researchers found that the effects of repeated alcohol consumption differed across brain regions. The brain region most susceptible to the effects of alcohol was one of two brain regions where new brain cells are created in adults.

    They also noted that female mice showed more severe deficits than males. The females displayed more severe intoxication behaviors and more greatly reduced the pool of stem cells in the subventricular zone.

    Using this model, scientists expect to learn more about how alcohol interacts with brain stem cells, which will ultimately lead to a clearer understanding of how best to treat and cure alcoholism.

    Other authors include UTMB’s Erica McGrath, Junling Gao, Yong Fang Kuo, Tiffany Dunn, Moniqua Ray, Kelly Dineley, Kathryn Cunningham and Bhupendra Kaphalia.


  10. Study suggests smoking, binge drinking and unsafe tanning may be linked in men

    November 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Connecticut press release:

    Even though men use tanning beds at lower rates than women, men who tan tend to do it in riskier ways, according to a study by researchers at the University of Connecticut. The findings should help public health officials rethink how, and to whom, they’re targeting anti-tanning messages.

    Because the stereotypical tanning salon client is a young woman, almost all the research and health messaging on tanning has focused on that demographic. But the new research in press in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that one in three people who use tanning beds in the U.S. are male.

    Men who tan report using tanning beds with about the same frequency as women, but smoke and binge drink at higher rates than their female counterparts, and they also tend to treat tanning more like an addiction than women do, say the authors. A full 49 percent of men who used tanning beds fit a pattern of addictive behavior around tanning.

    “That was really surprising,” says lead author Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media. “If they tan with the same frequency as women, why would tanning in men be more addictive?”

    Pagoto and her colleagues conducted a national survey of 636 people who answered “yes” when asked whether they had ever used a tanning bed. They queried the participants about frequency of use, preferred locations to tan, how they felt about tanning, and why they did it.

    The differences between men and women were marked. Women preferred to tan in salons, and said they valued low cost, cleanliness, and convenience. Men who tanned preferred less regulated settings, such as gyms or private homes. They said they liked to tan to accentuate the appearance of their muscles, or as a reward after working out. They also reported smoking tobacco, binge drinking alcohol, and drinking soda significantly more often than women who tan.

    Men also answered “yes” when asked if they ever felt anxious if they weren’t able to tan, tanned to relieve stress, or spent money on tanning even when they couldn’t afford it. They agreed with statements such as “I’d like to quit but I keep going back to it.”

    There’s a population of men who tan and engage in other risky behaviors and are very unlike the young women that health educators assume are at risk of tanning bed health impacts, says Pagoto.

    Pagoto and her team are pursuing another study to delve more deeply into who tans, asking questions about sexual orientation, given that recent research has revealed that homosexual men are just as likely to use tanning beds as young women. The research should help health officials trying to warn the public of the very real connection between tanning beds and skin cancer, she says.

    Sun lamps and tanning beds are legal for adult use in all 50 states, even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as a Class 1 carcinogen like tobacco, radon, and arsenic, and the use of tanning beds has been linked to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

    Most current marketing messaging is targeted to teen- and college-aged women, according to Pagoto. Men who tan are unlikely to relate to that type of message. Pagoto is now applying social media marketing principles to develop prevention messages that resonate with specific audience segments.

    “We’re also hoping to spread the message on college campuses, since the tanning industry heavily markets to college students,” she says.