Abstinent cocaine addicts would rather look at images involving their drug of choice than erotic images, pictures of babies or other conventionally pleasing imagery, even though they say they like the pleasant pictures better, new research suggests.
"The pleasant images were more pleasant to them and more arousing than the cocaine images," Dr Rita Goldstein of the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the principal investigator on the study, told Reuters Health. "But still they don't choose those pleasant images more often."
While the findings are "commonsense," noted Goldstein, the fact that this preference was confirmed scientifically suggests that such images offer a useful way to study and perhaps even treat addiction. "In science, many times the most commonsense things kind of come last," Goldstein said.
Scott Moeller, a University of Michigan graduate student who participated in the research, presented the findings this week during the US Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Washington, DC.
How the study was conducted
The experiment consisted of two tasks, which took a total of 10 minutes to complete. In the first, 20 cocaine-addicted individuals and 20 controls chose a card from one of four decks, each of which contained a preponderance of one type of image: cocaine-related images (showing the drug itself or people using it); pleasant images; unpleasant, aversive images such as mutilated bodies; or neutral images. The study participants didn't know that each deck contained more of a particular type of image. In the second task, they chose between two images taken from the four decks and placed side by side.
The cocaine-addicted study participants chose the cocaine-related images more often than the controls, who found such images aversive. But when asked to rate how pleasant an image was, the cocaine addicts rated the pleasant images more highly than the control group did.
And the more heavily a person had used cocaine in the last 30 days, the stronger his or her preference for the cocaine-related pictures. "That's an objective measure to tap into severity of use," Goldstein said.
Risk of relapse
The strategy tested could also be used to evaluate a person's risk of relapse, according to the researcher, as well as to gauge the effectiveness of addiction treatment.
Another application of the findings, she added, would be to use the cocaine-related images to help desensitise people addicted to the drug - similarly to how exposing people with phobias to the thing they are afraid of can help them overcome their fear.
"One way would be actually to expose them to those images in a very nurturing and structured and protective environment, and then walk them through that craving," Goldstein explained. Then, when the person encounters the drug in real life, "they know that craving that's elicited will subside, because they already practiced that." – (Reuters Health)
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