When an individual exhibits addictive or obsessive behavior, they continue to do so because the stimulus in question is perceived to be highly rewarding despite the adverse consequences that follow. Clinical research has shown that addiction alters the brain’s processes that dictate what a person desires, how habits are formed, how emotions are regulated, as well as how learning takes place. Researchers such as Gallimberti, Terraneo, Goldstein and Volkow have studied the mechanisms of and potential treatment modalities for addiction.
In the case of cocaine addiction, clinical neuroscientist Anna Childress analyzes the brain scans of recovering addicts and determines how the brain’s reward system is triggered by subliminal cues. In her experiments she briefly shows patients images of cocaine – less than a second of exposure – and observes how the reward system is easily stimulated. Childress, along with many fellow neuroscientists, ultimately seek to stop this activation from occurring, preventing recovering addicts from relapsing from exposure to triggers. One experimental method that has shown to have results is the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation, where electromagnetic pulses are applied to the prefrontal cortex. Patrick Perotti, a serious cocaine user, resorted to this technique when he felt he had exhausted all other traditional options and has yet to fall into another relapse.
Cocaine addiction, a target of behavioral scientists, falls into the spectrum of compulsive behaviors. A recent revision in the handbook of American psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, officially recognizes gambling as a behavioral addiction. Through the application of scientific approaches, researchers hope to cure compulsive behaviors such as gambling and gaming addictions. Scientists also believe that excessive shopping, use of social media, and consumption of junk food can potentially be addictive due to the “craving” effect they have on the brain’s rewards system. All of these activities resemble drug addiction by producing 3 common factors: an insatiable desire, an uncontrollable urge and a total disregard for consequences.
Advances in the area of neuroscience have done much to support the disease theory of addiction. The brain houses the infrastructure of how a person thinks, considers risk and applies self-control. Neurologist, Antonello Bonci from the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction as a “pathological form of learning”; addiction rewires the brain into having new perceived wants and needs. Scientists recognize the need for additional research and studies to further validate their experimental treatments, but are reassured by the progress they have made thus far.