July 30, 2015

Intellectual Stimulation, A Hedge Against Addiction?

“Intellectually” stimulated mice are less likely to become addicts. The same may be true for humans.

Addiction is one of the hardest health problems to treat — from prescription drug addiction to alcohol or food addiction, effective treatments are lacking for the millions who deal with addiction every day.

Intellectual stimulation may play a role in how prone we are to addiction, according to a new study. Though the study was done in mice, the researchers feel the results may well hold true for humans, too.

Positive learning experiences, through education or play in a structured environment, could sculpt and develop brain circuits to build resilience in at-risk individuals.

The team divided mice into one of three groups: The first group engaged in an “Intellectually” stimulating pursuit: they foraged around in a pile of wood shavings for a Honey Nut Cheerio. A second group was “yoked” to the first, meaning that they got the same reward, but didn’t have to do the work. The third group was kept in a regular lab cage, with minimal intellectual stimulation or exercise.

Later, the mice were allowed to experiment in three new chambers. One of the chambers provided them with a cocaine shot — mice enjoy cocaine in much the same way humans do. The researchers looked at which mice more strongly preferred the cocaine-associated chamber.

At first, all the mice preferred the chamber that had provided cocaine — but over time, the mice who’d been intellectually stimulated went back to that chamber much less than the other two groups who continued to do so, which suggests something had happened in their brains to buffer then against addiction in the long term.

“We have compelling behavioral evidence that self-directed exploration and learning altered their reward systems so that when cocaine was experienced it made less of an impact on their brain,” study author Linda Wilbrecht said in a statement.

If the same results held true for humans, it would open up new doors for treatment and perhaps even prevention of addictive behaviors early in life.

“…[P]ositive learning experiences, through education or play in a structured environment, could sculpt and develop brain circuits to build resilience in at-risk individuals,” said Wilbrecht. Interventions early in life may not take too much time, she added, and, because they would presumably help mold different patterns of brain connections, they might be quite long lasting.

Of course some of the most intellectually stimulated people throughout history and today — artists, writers, politicians, and business people — have certainly dealt with various addictions, and often severe ones. So, clearly, there are caveats, and early intellectual stimulation is unlikely to be a cure-all. But when it comes to addiction, anything that reduces a person’s risk over the course of their lifetime is certainly worth looking into.

The study was carried out by a team at UC Berkeley, and published in the journal Neuropharmacology.

Photo illustration by Emily Strange
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