Addictive Cravings Still Identifiable In The Brain After Death

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/28/16

New research has uncovered "dependence memory," a discovery that could change the way we approach addiction treatment for the better. 

Doctor examining an MRI of the brain.

For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that addictive cravings are still detectable in the brain after death. A new study out of the Medical University of Vienna found these results.

According to the researchers, “a protein known as FosB in the reward center of the brain alters in chronically ill people suffering from an addictive disorder (e.g. heroin addiction).” The change that the drug causes means that this protein remains longer in the brain than it would in its natural form; it can persist as long “as several weeks after withdrawal of the drug.” This explains why addictive cravings may persist after someone is physically detoxed from drugs or alcohol.

The study was led by Monika Seltenhammer of MedUni Vienna's Department of Forensic Medicine and published in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy. Researchers say “this addictive craving is stored in a sort of ‘memory’ function and, surprisingly, can still be detected after death.” This is called “dependence memory.”

Researchers have long known that addiction has a detectable impact on the brains of those who suffer from it, but now those changes have been shown postmortem. Researchers estimate that these changes may last even longer in living people, perhaps as long as months.

These findings could have a huge impact on drug treatment and the way support is provided to people trying to manage their addiction. "If the addictive craving persists in the brain for months, it is very important to provide protracted after-care and corresponding psychological support," says Seltenhammer. This could mean a better understanding of why “spin dries” in detox facilities often don’t work, leading people to relapse soon after being released from detox when they no longer have a physical dependence on a drug.

At a time when advocates, healthcare professionals, and legislators are working to find the best approach to treating opioid addiction, research that gives insight into how addiction affects the brains and bodies of those who suffer is indispensable.

Each new study is a piece of the puzzle that can hopefully lead to a fuller understanding of how best to treat the disease that has long baffled so many, including those who struggle with it.

Researchers hope to continue their work to gain a better understanding of how activation of this protein can be prevented to hopefully “treat the onset of addictive behavior.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.