Researchers explore cures to addiction



Addiction is mainly a result of the brain's natural response to a feeling of pleasure caused by dopamine.

Meryem Nur Pamuk, Contributing Writer

Our society is addiction-prone, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, ice cream or the internet. Many people around the world are addicts and many die because of their addiction. The cycle of addiction is very hard to break. However, developments in science may change this. Many scientists around the world are looking for new and more effective ways to cure addiction which “is a disease, not a moral failing,” as Fran Smith wrote in her article titled “How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction” in the September 2017 issue of the National Geographic.

Psychiatrist Luigi Gallimberti and his colleagues in the Novella Foundation in Padua, Italy use electromagnetic pulses to treat patients with addiction. It is an experimental treatment and is still being tested. However, the possible outcomes are incredible and it has cured some people. Gallimberti’s technique is called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. They use a coiled wire inside a wand, and when electric current runs through it, it creates an electromagnetic pulse which changes the electrical activity in the brain. It is based on a magnetic field because our brains use electrical impulses all the time. Gallimberti and his colleagues target the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls inhibiting behavior and consequently reduces an addict’s desire to continue addictive behavior or substances.

Neuroscientist Anna Rose Childress at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction is studying the reward system of the brain in order to better understand addiction. Both are related to the neurotransmitter dopamine. When addicts consciously or unconsciously sense something related to drugs, the dopamine level in their brains increases immensely, which in turn leads to the desire for drugs.

Rita Z. Goldstein is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and she also is working on the reward system of the brain. She is testing whether or not a person’s awareness of what is going on in their brain helps them to be more in control of themselves. Goldstein has shown that cocaine addicts generally perform worse on some psychological tests that were not related to drugs because of the changes in their prefrontal cortex. She and her team have also shown that when addicts stop using drugs, their frontal brain regions begin to heal.

Other interesting research was done by Marc Potenza, who works at Yale University School of Medicine, on how gambling is also an addiction. He did imaging studies on the brain and found that gamblers have very similar brain scans to drug addicts. Furthermore, the behavior and thoughts of gamblers closely resemble that of drug addicts.

What is considered addictive and what is not? Psychiatrist John Grant, who works at University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine, considers “Anything that’s overly rewarding, anything that induces euphoria or is calming can be addictive.” He also acknowledges that being addicted or not depends on the person. Nicole Avena, who is a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York,  has done research on food addiction and believes that it is a major problem. So, things such as food, shopping, smartphones and the internet can also be considered addictive.

The best way to be free of addiction is not to start addictive substances or behavior. However, science is teaching us more about how addiction works and about new ways to free oneself of addictions.  Research is being done all over the world, and future treatment is more promising for addicts. In the future, I hope that scientists will be able to discover effective ways to treat people who are dealing with addiction worldwide.