Imaging study finds a structural difference in the brains of cocaine addicts

A team led by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has used advanced imaging techniques to identify an unexpected structural difference in the brains of cocaine addicts. The report in the Nov. 18 issue of Neuron describes how a key structure called the amygdala, which previous research has linked to the brain's reward-processing system, is smaller in cocaine addicts than in healthy volunteers. While the current study cannot determine whether this difference is a cause of addiction or results from an early event in the course of drug use, the findings suggest a need to reformulate current strategies for treating cocaine addiction.

"Work here and at other centers has identified the amygdala's fundamental role in addiction. It is important for producing drug craving, which has a powerful effect in maintaining drug abuse," says Hans Breiter, MD, co-director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Collaboration in the MGH Departments of Radiology and Psychiatry, and the senior author of the current study. "No one anticipated such a specific pattern of volume reduction in the amygdalas of cocaine addicts pointing to potential problems in a small number of sub-regions of this brain structure."

Earlier studies by Breiter's group and others used advanced imaging techniques to show how cocaine use affects the activity of key structures deep within the brain. Among those findings was reduced activity in the amygdala, particularly during times when addicts reported feelings of craving. In the few previous studies that examined brain structure in cocaine addicts, abnormalities were found only in regions connected to the amygdala. Pursuing those observations, the researchers sought to discover whether structural abnormalities would be found in the amygdala itself that could reflect either vulnerability to cocaine addiction or changes caused by drug use.

Using newly developed imaging techniques to produce extremely detaile

Contact: Sue McGreevey
Massachusetts General Hospital

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