Tangible triggers for drug cravings, like people, places or things associated with drug use, are easy to identify for most addicts. Still, many addicts report cravings that start from a trigger they couldn't identify. Preventing those subconscious triggers might hold the key to avoiding relapse in recovering addicts.
A research team has published a study on the effect of baclofen on the subconscious triggers of drug craving.
These researchers reported that baclofen lowered brain responses to subconscious triggers of drug cravings in cocaine-dependent patients.
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This study was conducted by a team led by Anna Rose Childress, PhD, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
The study recruited 23 men ages 18 to 55 who were cocaine-dependent. Each man had reported using cocaine at least eight days in the previous month. During the study, the men spent seven to 10 days in an inpatient drug treatment facility.
These participants were split into two groups. One group was given baclofen at increasing doses up to 60 mg. The other group received fake pills, called placebos.
Once the baclofen group was taking the 60 mg dose, the researchers began running brain scans on all subjects while they were shown a series of pictures. The brain scans measured their response to the pictures.
The pictures were shown very briefly and were shown in a series. The first picture was a cross that the men focused on; the next picture was the main or “target” picture and was either about cocaine use or preparation, a sexual image, a disgusting picture or a neutral picture, such as furniture or an object. The target picture was followed by a neutral picture, then another cross.
The four pictures were shown very quickly over 2,000 milliseconds. By showing pictures for a very short amount of time, this stimulation was more like a subconscious trigger for drug use than a physical trigger, such as being in the presence of people using drugs.
During the time the images were shown, brain scans were taken. The researchers were interested in brain activity in the areas of the brain that are active in drug craving.
Results of the brain images showed that the patients given baclofen had a significantly lower brain response to the cocaine images than to the neutral pictures, compared to the group of men who took placebo.
The researchers saw no differences between the two groups in the brain activity scans while the patients were shown the sexual or disgusting pictures. This finding indicated to the researchers that baclofen specifically worked to reduce the response to a subconscious drug trigger.
"Our findings provide the first evidence that a pharmacotherapy can impact unconscious drug motivational processing in humans,” the authors wrote.
In a press statement, Dr. Childress added, "Further studies will show whether the prevention of these early brain responses is associated with reduced rates of craving and relapse in cocaine-dependent patients."
This study was published April 2 in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Funding for the study was provided by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The authors declared no conflicts of interest.