Brain Damage From Stroke May Provide Link to Breaking Addiction

By Paul Gaita 09/10/15

A particular region in the brain could play an important role in curbing substance abuse.

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A region in the brain called the insular cortex may serve as the key for researchers seeking an effective treatment for addiction issues.

Scientists and doctoral students at Philips Research North America and the Department of Public Health Services at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry conducted studies involving stroke patients who were also smokers, and found that those that suffered a stroke in that region were more likely to quit smoking compared to those with strokes in other parts of the brain.

Their research, published in Addiction and Addictive Behaviors, determined that the insular cortex, located in the central region of the brain, might play an important role in both the mental and emotional processes that are a part of substance use, including tobacco and drugs.

The study focused on 156 stroke patients at three hospitals in Rochester, New York, all of who were identified as active smokers. The patients were divided into two groups: those whose strokes had occurred in the insular cortex and those whose strokes had been situated in another part of the brain.

Survey tools employed by the researchers measured aspects of withdrawal such as anger, cravings, sadness and impact on sleep. The results showed that patients with strokes in the insular cortex suffered far fewer and less several withdrawal symptoms than those with strokes in other areas. After three months, 70% of the former group quit smoking entirely, while only 30% of the latter had ended their smoking addiction.

The researchers hope that their study will provide a new direction for therapies and medication to treat addiction without the high level of relapse that is experienced with drugs that are currently used to treat tobacco dependence, such as bupropion and varenicline, as well as nicotine replacement therapies like patches, all of which have a success rate of up to 30% after six months of use.

“Much more research is needed in order for us to more fully understand the underlying mechanism and specific role of the insular cortex," said the study's lead author Amir Abdolahi, Ph.D. "But it is clear that something is going on in this part of the brain that is influencing addiction.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.