Drugs "Hijack" Brain's Decision-Making

By Chrisanne Grise 11/27/12

New research reveals that drugs can distort the brain's ability to make judgments based on past experience.

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Drugs can make you "regress" to habitual
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Scientists have made new strides into understanding the neurological impact of drugs on an individual's capacity to make decisions informed from past experiences. The orbitofrontal cortex of the brain has long been known to be responsible for the brain's decision-making, but new research reveals that while the area is responsible for decisions on the spur of the moment, it is not responsible for decisions based on habit or prior experience. This distinction—recently discovered by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and published in the journal Science——may help explain the neurological patterns responsible for substance abuse and addiction. “Drug addiction is marked by severe deficits in judgment and bad decision-making on the part of the addict,” says lead author Joshua Jones, Ph.D. “We believe that drugs, particularly cocaine, affect the orbitofrontal cortex. They coerce the system and hijack decision-making.” The damage to the brain region caused by drugs can have long-lasting effects that prevent people from using the consequences of past decisions to influence present ones. “Our research showed that damage to the orbitofrontal cortex may decrease a person’s ability to use prior experience to make good decisions on the fly,” says Jones. “The person isn’t able to consider the whole continuum of the decision—the mind’s map of how choices play out further down the road. Instead, the person is going to regress to habitual behavior, gravitating toward the choice that provides the most value in its immediate reward.”

However, since this study was conducted on a rat, researchers say further study will be needed to assess addiction and neurological decision-making patterns in humans. Nonetheless, experts believe the current results could lead to promising developments in the field of addiction treatment. “Our goal here at the School of Medicine is to make groundbreaking discoveries in the laboratory that can be translated into new treatments and new hope for patients and their families,” says Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We are hopeful that research tells us more about the basic mechanisms in the brain and will translate to new techniques in neurobiology and in treating devastating conditions such as drug addiction.”

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices, AbsolutePunk.net, Chorus.fm, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.