Can Medication-Assisted Treatment Repair Damage Caused By Drug Use?

By Kelly Burch 07/22/19

Dr. Nora Volkow is testing this theory by studying the brain scans of people with opioid use disorder. 

Scientists studying brain scans of person who uses medication-assisted treatment

Over the past few years medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has become the standard of care for people with opioid use disorder, helping to cut users' risk of fatal overdose by as much as half.

Now, researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) are hoping to understand why. 

NIDA director, Dr. Nora Volkow, has a theory. She believes that medications including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone don’t just help people deal with cravings for drugs. She thinks these medications also help repair the damage done to the brain by drug use, the AP reported.

"Can we completely recover? I do not know that," she said. However, people on medication-assisted treatment are “creating stability" in their brains, which allows the brains to react more normally to stimuli. 

The Theory

Volkow is testing her theory by completing brain scans on people with opioid use disorder. This includes people who are actively using, those in early recovery, and people on established MAT plans. Volkow and her research team are examining how people react to various stimuli—e.g. what reaction does a picture of a cupcake garner, for example, compared to a picture of heroin?

The researchers are also doing other work to measure people’s impulse control with exercises like offering them $50 now or $100 in a week’s time. 

"You need to be able to inhibit the urge to get something [to overcome addiction],” Volkow said. "We take for granted that people think about the future. Not when you're addicted.”

Volkow also wants to study how each medication affects people differently. For example, she suspects that buprenorphine will have more of an effect on mental and emotional health than methadone. 

She expects to see big difference in the brain scans of people who use opioids, compared with those who are on medication-assisted treatment. 

"You should be able to see it with your eyes, without having to be an expert," she said.

The Search For Participants

Unfortunately the research team has struggled to find participants who are healthy enough to be considered. Research subjects cannot be on any medications that affect the brain other than their MAT regimen. 

Overall, Volkow hopes that by better understanding medication-assisted treatment and how it can help people with opioid use disorder, scientists will dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings about MAT. 

"People say you're just changing one drug for another," she said. "The brain responds differently to these medications than to heroin. It's not the same."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.