Brain Activity Differs in People Who Later Develop Drug Abuse Disorder

As recreational use of marijuana and ADHD drugs like Adderall continues to rise among teenagers and young adults, and as more states move to legalize marijuana, researchers are trying to identify what factors put young adults at risk for developing an addiction.

Researchers at The Graduate Center have now identified brain activity in recreational drug users who go on to develop a drug use disorder that differs from those who don’t.

Past studies have looked at differences in brain activity in people after they’ve developed an addiction, making it difficult to know whether the long-term drug use caused those differences or if those differences existed before the drug use and had predisposed people to become addicted.

Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Melanie Blair (Psychology) and Professor Jennifer Stewart (GC/Queens, Psychology) wanted to tease that out by looking at behaviors and brain activity differences that might lead people to become abusers. “The goal of this study was to identify who among occasional stimulant users are at higher risk of problem use,” says Blair.

The researchers recruited college-aged students who occasionally used stimulants, such as cocaine and the prescription amphetamines Adderall and Ritalin for recreational purposes (not to treat ADHD). During functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the students were given tasks requiring them to make risky or safe decisions, while the MRI monitored brain activity in various regions associated with rewards and decision making. The researchers met with the subjects three years later to assess whether they had developed a drug use disorder based on standard diagnostic criteria.

The results, which were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, found that at the start of the study, some of the students made riskier choices, and those students also had differences in brain activity than those who made less risky decisions. Many of these students also developed a drug use disorder three years later.

Those who later developed a drug use disorder showed lower activity in the prefrontal cortex and other decision-making areas during the activity. “This suggests that their brains were not as engaged in the process of evaluating a reward versus a loss,” says Blair.

“Young adults who transition to stimulant use disorder show a blunted pattern of brain activation during decision making that appears to resemble that seen in chronic stimulant users,” adds Stewart.

The research suggests that certain people may have a predisposition to developing drug abuse. “The ultimate goal of this research is to identify signs that could detect which individuals are at risk, based on brain activity and behavior patterns, and then better target those groups with prevention interventions,” says Blair.

Submitted on: MAY 28, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology | Student News