Study Finds Cocaine May Impair Brain’s Ability to Predict Loss

By May Wilkerson 02/10/15

Researchers hope their findings will be used to develop new treatments for cocaine addiction.

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Cocaine addiction may impair the brain’s ability to recognize emotional loss, like a breakup or losing a job, according to a new study. Researchers say this could explain why cocaine addicts may have a tough time kicking the habit even when it causes destruction in their lives.

Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital focused on a person’s ability to predict a likely reward, or loss, based on their behavior, a measurement known as Reward Prediction Error (RPE). They recorded and compared the brain activity of both cocaine addicts and drug-free control subjects while subjects played a gambling game.

Each person had to predict whether or not they would win or lose. Researchers found that the brains of the cocaine users failed to trigger RPE signals in response to negative outcomes in the game, compared to the non-cocaine users’ brains.

Scientists say RPE signaling is key in helping people learn from past mistakes and adapt our behavior to result in more favorable outcomes. These findings suggest that cocaine addicts may continue to use and relapse, because their ability to recognize the outcomes of their behavior is impaired.

“This study shows that individuals with substance use disorder have difficulty computing the difference between expected versus unexpected outcomes, which is critical for learning and future decision making,” said Doctor Muhammad Parvaz, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine and lead author in the study. “This impairment might underlie disadvantageous decision making in these individuals.”

Researchers say these findings could be used to develop new treatments for cocaine addiction, and help identify people who are at a higher risk of relapse.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.