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Treating addiction by focusing on the brain

Associated Press

Technology and science has made it much easier to become addicted to products that allow us to ingest nicotine and opioids, but neuroscience can be just as easily harnessed to help the human brain cope with addiction as well, researchers argue in Science.

Their main point: Nearly all of the available treatments for opioid addiction treat it as a short-term problem with the goal of detoxing the system and coping with withdrawal symptoms. The health care system and policy support that approach, but addiction is a more lasting disorder that changes the brain. Treatment, the authors write, should be focused on long-term interventions such as support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous), treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, "sober living" residencies and extended case monitoring.

The backdrop: On Tuesday, a presidential task force will issue recommendations for how to deal with a growing opioid epidemic that is decimating families and communities in parts of the U.S. On average, 91 people die in America every day from opioid overdoses. The NIH recently announced a research push to address the nation's opioid crisis.

What they found: Researchers looked at how technology and science has made it easier for addiction to take hold. For instance, cigarettes were once hand-rolled and harsh in the 19th century, making it hard work for someone to smoke. Now, big tobacco companies can roll 20,000 cigarettes on a factory floor in under a minute, and lace the cigarettes with flavors to make it far easier on the lungs as the smoke is inhaled. Likewise, opioids – once confined to small parts of the population – are now widespread and easily available.

But just as science has made addiction easier, it can also chart new paths away from addiction as well. As researchers better understand the ways in which addiction takes hold of our brains, programs and therapies can mute or even block the addiction pathways in our brains.