Their outlook on life, the friends they choose, their eating and sleeping habits. Perhaps the most important change is actually the least visible: how addiction changes the way the brain carries out its regular functions.
One such change regards the pleasure, or ‘reward’, the brain receives from certain stimuli. In clinical terms this is called the reward system.
A healthy brain responds positively to stimuli such as good food, music or loving human relations. In the brain of a dependent person, the reward system becomes dysfunctional: the brain gets stimulated by drugs and alcohol but is unable to enjoy natural stimuli as other people would.
A recent study by Dr Scott C. Bunce, of Penn State University College of Medicine, proves that a longer stay in residential addiction treatment can help regulate reward system.
“If the patient remains in treatment”, states Dr Bunce, “and off drugs for several months, the body’s natural reward systems may have the capacity to return toward normal, making it easier for them to remain drug-free outside the treatment setting.”
In the study, two groups of seven patients were compared. One group was at the end of its first or second week in treatment and was undergoing opioid withdrawal treatment (detox). The second (long term) group had experienced two to three months of drug-free residential care.
The second (long term) group of patients had reduced levels of adrenaline compared to those who had only recently withdrawn from opiates. Adrenaline is a hormone that is released in response to stress and high levels can have many negative consequences. The long term group were sleeping well, while the first (detox) group were having sleep disturbances. It was also found that the patients who stayed longer in treatment showed lower signs of attention to drug-related stimulants (e.g. photos of pills) compared to the group who had spent less time in rehabilitation.
The results of this study provide evidence that opiate-dependent patients who spend more time in residential rehab have brain functioning that is closer to normal than those who have spent little time in rehab. It is possible that this leads to better outcomes for those that stay longer.
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Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | August 25, 2021