July 24, 2019
Though a number of efforts have been made to get the opioid epidemic under control, stakeholders need work out an effective solution. One way to do this is to understand how opioids affect people and influence them by transforming their brains and the other is to find out more about treatment options for opioid addiction. A team of scientists from the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) proposes to do just that.
When an individual consumes an opioid, it enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors called neurons in the brain cells. These neurons stimulate the reward center of the brain, which, in turn, release a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine. As time passes, the receptors become less sensitive and require more opioids to similarly stimulate the reward center.
Opioid use changes the brain in such a way that users start craving more, making it difficult for them to quit. This characterizes the onset of an addiction as an individual begins using more of the drug to experience the same effect as before. Slowly, the person finds themselves trapped in the never-ending cycle of addiction, sobriety, and relapse. Hence, more insight is required to understand how the brain chemistry works in the absence and presence of opioids and how the drugs, aimed at reducing addiction, help in the larger picture.
Taking this thought process forward, NIDA scientists started a study in which they would monitor the people’s brains struggling with an opioid addiction to analyze if the established medicines used for treating addiction, like methadone, extended-release naltrexone, and buprenorphine, help more than just managing cravings and withdrawals. The scientists also want to explore if these medicines help the damaged brain heal, and if so, then which of these approved medicines works best for a particular patient.
Medicines effective for treating opioid addiction
Every year, millions of people grapple with opioid addiction, however, only a handful of them receive treatment. Further, the popular belief is that addiction treatment is just replacing one addiction with another. However, lead scientist Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, says that starting a patient on an addiction treatment medicine is not like substituting one drug for the other. The brain reacts in a different manner to addiction treatment medications compared to illicit drugs like heroin. In fact, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, patients decrease the risk of dying by half when they continue to follow their medication schedule of methadone or buprenorphine.
An addiction to opioids brings about changes in the brain, making the users susceptible to a relapse especially during early recovery. However, the impact of these changes reduces long-term abstinence making it possible for a person to stay away from the substance. Though the healing of the brain starts when an individual stops taking the substance, according to Dr. Volkow, the process can be accelerated with the use of treatment medication.
To substantiate this hypothesis, Dr. Volkow and her team compared the brain scans of people who quit heroin with the help of methadone, with the scans of people who were in the initial stages of treatment and people who were active heroin users. Dr. Volkow is not sure yet if medications can help an individual to recover completely, however, she emphasized upon the facts that medicine does stabilize a patient which helps in recalibrating the brain, allowing it to start responding to everyday pleasures again.
How different medications help?
Dr. Volkow and her team strive to analyze the brain scans of at least 80 people comprised of individuals who have not received any treatment for their heroin use and patients receiving different types of medications for addiction treatment. Her team would absorb how the brain’s ability of releasing dopamine changes with the progression of their treatment.
The team will also conduct some tests to analyze the changes in the functioning of other neural networks as the study participants perform various other tasks. For instance, checking if the patient’s brain remains fixated on a cue related to addiction, like seeing a picture of heroin, or does it resume normal reaction at the sight of a cupcake? In order to check the kind of patience and self-control they can muster, patients will also be asked if they would be happy receiving $50 now or would they wait and receive $100 after a week. Dr. Volkow insists that this test is important as it presents the inability of the addicted person to think about the future. Once addicted, an individual usually displays drug-seeking behavior, obsessing over their cravings.
Everybody reacts differently to medications, that is why Dr. Volkow wants to specifically examine people who relapse to discover the differences in various treatment protocols. She further feels that buprenorphine might work better than methadone in improving emotional and mood responses in people seeking addiction treatment because of the subtle differences in the way the drug works.
Till now, Dr. Volkow’s teammates have screened more than 400 willingly study participants, however, after taking into account all the factors, only 7 have been finalized so far. The main challenge lies in looking for people neither struggling with any other disorder and taking medications for any mental illnesses or lifestyle disorders like depression, hypertension, or diabetes..
Dealing with opioid addiction
Although severe and chronic opioid addiction is fatal, it is treatable with timely intervention. If you or a loved one is battling opioid addiction and is looking for a reliable detox treatment center, get in touch with the Invictus Health Group. We can connect you with state-of-the-art centers offering the latest in detox treatment to help you overcome your addiction. Call our 24/7 helpline 866-548-0190 or chat online with our experts who can guide you during your admission process in our network facilities.