Drug addicts may be predisposed to substance abuse because of the make-up of their brains, Cambridge scientists have discovered.
Researchers at Cambridge University have identified abnormalities in the frontal lobe of cocaine users’ brains which are linked to their compulsive cocaine-using behaviour.
The News reported earlier this year how the university was seeking cocaine users to take part in a brain-mapping study.
Volunteers were offered £80 and were told they would receive a scan of their brain in return.
Led by Dr Karen Ersche, the researchers scanned the brains of 120 people, half of whom had a dependence on cocaine.
They found that the cocaine users had widespread loss of grey matter which was directly related to the duration of their cocaine abuse and that this reduction in volume was associated with greater compulsivity to take cocaine.
The scientists also found that parts of the brain’s reward system where cocaine has its effect were significantly enlarged in cocaine users. This was not linked to the duration of the user’s habit.
The researchers believe this may suggest that alterations in the brain’s reward system predate cocaine abuse, possibly rendering these people more vulnerable to the effects of the drug.
Dr Ersche, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the university, said: "This research gives us an important insight into why some people are more vulnerable to drug addiction.
"Not only is this important for the future development of more effective therapeutic interventions for people who have become dependent on drugs, it will also inform improved strategies to prevent drug addiction in the first place."
The researchers also showed that changes in other brain structures of chronic cocaine users were linked to debil¬itating attention problems.
The team will now explore whether there is an inherited vulnerability to developing cocaine dependence.
Dr Ersche is still looking for different types of cocaine users to take part in brain-imaging studies, particularly those who take cocaine recreationally and are at least 20 years of age, as well as people who have been using cocaine regularly for many years and are now over 50.
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