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Can the Addicted Brain Change Back?

Prolonged drug use can change the brain in fundamental and possibly permanent ways, say experts. National Institute of Mental Health director Steven Hyman, M.D., says there are some changes that happen in the brain that "may be irreversible, especially [some] emotional memories" associated with drug use. But he notes that just as people with strokes are able to, addicts can recover by using other parts of their brain that weren't affected by the drugs.

PET scans: Normal vs. Cocaine Abuser

These PET scans show that changes in the way a cocaine abuser's brain metabolizes glucose persist long after the person has stopped using the drug. But the brain does appear to be slowly returning towards normal.

The research into cocaine by Mark Gold of the Florida-based Brain Institute has found that changes in the number and functioning of dopamine receptors and transporters in the brain persisted for many months after abstinence. However, Gold says, there is ongoing research into the ability of brain cells to recover from damage caused by drugs. And many recovering addicts can certainly learn to live happy, productive lives drug-free. Therefore, the brain must possess some ability to return to a state that allows normal experience of pleasure. (If it was an inability to experience pleasure normally  -- e.g., chronic depression -- that drove the person to drug use in the first place, of course, quitting substance use may not be enough to rectify this co-existing problem. The person might need treatment with antidepressants or other help.)  This is an area of important ongoing research.

-- Janet Firshein

Scans: Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory Center for Imaging and Neurosciences

ANIMATIONS | Differences | Crossing the Line | Relapse | Why Drugs? | Similar Effects | Dependence | Vulnerability | Changing Back | Interviews




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