Researchers Say Addiction is Just a State of Mind
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Researchers Say Addiction is Just a State of Mind


This post was originally published on February 2, 2015.

The question mark hangs as to whether addiction is the product of nature or nurture or both. Does faulty neural wiring cause people to reach for the blow, the smack and that last little bit of bud shoved into the end of a blunt? Or are traumatic memories of Grandma’s runny eggs or Uncle Bob’s molestation habits the reason we chug the whiskey?

Researchers Xiaosi Gu and Terry Lohrenz at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia are committed to disabusing the widely-accepted theory that addiction is mostly the result of a neurobiological reaction that occurs when a drug is absorbed into the brain. Their study was recently reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Theory in Question

There is definitely a physical component to drug addiction—be it cigarettes, cocaine or booze. In the case of cigarettes, this physical dependency is sometimes what people address first, reaching for Nicorette or Chantix to alleviate the symptoms of chemical withdrawal. But psychology might play an equal—or greater—role in this neurobiological activity, a role as paramount as nicotine itself.

For a Camel Red to do its job properly (you know, make you relaxed or concentrated or whatever else nicotine and tar supposedly do), the nicotine fires up a reaction in the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway. Yeah, that’s a mouthful. To put it simply, this pathway sends messages to the reward system and pleasure center in your brain. To put it even more simply—when a Camel Red floods your mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway with nicotine, you feel good…really good. And you end up wanting to continue to feel good, so you light up another cigarette.

The Experiment

Because Gu and Lohrenze believe chemical dependence plays a smaller role in the disease of addiction than what current scientific thinking suggests, they set out to prove our belief systems are more responsible for our biological reactions to addictive substances. So if you believe in unicorns, will that change the way you metabolize a cigarette? Not exactly.

The researchers rounded up 24 chronic smokers to test out how important a role belief systems play in the reward sensation that their subjects got from cigarettes, and they got some fascinating results.

After dividing the subjects into groups of two, they gave one group cigarettes with nicotine and the other group nicotine-free cigarettes. Neither of the groups were told whether they were smoking real cigarettes or placebo cigarettes.

The Results

When the subjects were told they just smoked a cigarette that didn’t have nicotine—even if the cigarette did have nicotine—they produced neurological responses similar to those who did not have nicotine. And vice versa. After hooking the subjects up to MRI scans, the researchers noted that the neuroactivity of the subjects changed according to whether they were told they were in fact smoking a real cigarette, not according to whether they were actually inhaling nicotine. Pretty powerful stuff.

In a Nutshell

The good news about this study is that the physical aspect of addiction may not be as insurmountable a problem as we’ve thought, especially with cigarettes. Non-chemical smoking cessation aids like Nicotine Anonymous, hypnosis or therapy might unhook a smoker more successfully than just using chemical aids alone. Taken together, a smoker might have an even greater chance of success.

It remains unclear how addiction professionals will use this knowledge to develop new methods for treating addiction. Nothing has been published on treatment options just yet.

Let’s hope they hit the drawing board soon.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.