Craving is a key part of substance use disorders and can make it more likely that someone will use drugs again or relapse. But its neural basis, or how the brain makes a person want something, is not well known.
Newly Identifies Neuromarker Reveals Clues About Drug And Food Craving
In a new study, scientists from Yale, Dartmouth, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) found a stable pattern in the brain, or neuromarker, that is linked to cravings for drugs and food. Their research was written up in Nature Neuroscience.
Researchers say this could be a big step toward understanding how cravings are caused in the brain, how addiction is a brain disorder, and how to treat addiction better in the future. Importantly, this neuromarker could also be used to tell drug users apart from people who don’t use drugs. This would make it not only a neuromarker for craving but also a potential neuromarker that could be used one day to diagnose substance use disorders.
There are biological signs of a lot of diseases that doctors can use to diagnose and treat patients. For example, doctors test a blood marker called A1C to see if someone has diabetes.
Hedy Kober, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors, said, “One benefit of having a stable biological indicator for a disease is that you can then give the test to anyone and say whether or not they have that disease.” “And we don’t have that for psychopathy or addiction,” he said.
Kober and her colleagues Leonie Koban from CRNS and Tor Wager from Dartmouth College used a machine learning algorithm to see if such a marker could be found for cravings. Their idea was that if many people with similar levels of craving share a pattern of brain activity, a machine learning algorithm might be able to find that pattern and use it to predict craving levels based on brain images.
For the study, they trained and tested the machine learning algorithm with data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows how the brain works, and self-reported assessments of craving from 99 people.
The fMRI data were collected while the people, who said they either used drugs or didn’t, looked at pictures of drugs and very tasty food. The people then said how much they wanted the things they saw.
Researchers said that the algorithm found a pattern of brain activity that could be used to predict how bad drug and food cravings are just by looking at fMRI images.
They called the pattern they found “Neurobiological Craving Signature (NCS)” because it shows activity in several parts of the brain, some of which have been linked to drug use and cravings in the past.
But the NCS also adds a new level of detail by showing how neural activity in small parts of these brain areas can be used to predict cravings.
Kober said, “It gives us a detailed picture of how these regions interact with and predict the subjective experience of craving.”
The NCS also showed that the brain reacts the same way to cues about drugs and about food. This suggests that drug craving comes from the same neural systems that make people want food. Importantly, the marker was able to tell the difference between drug users and non-users based on how their brains responded to drug cues but not to food cues.
“And these results aren’t just about one drug because we looked at people who used cocaine, alcohol, and cigarettes, and the NCS predicts cravings for all of them,” said Kober. “So, it really is a biomarker for addiction and craving. In a moment of craving, you can see what all of these drug use disorders have in common. Wager also says that emotional and motivational processes, which might seem similar, use different brain pathways and can be measured in different ways.
He said, “It’s likely that what we’re seeing here is not a general signature for’reward,’ but rather something more specific for craving food and drugs.”
The NCS also gives researchers a new brain target to study to learn more about how the environment or emotions might affect food and drug cravings. “For example,” Koban said, “we can use the NCS in future studies to measure how stress or bad feelings make us want to use drugs or eat our favourite chocolate.”
Kober says that the NCS is promising, but it needs to be tested more and isn’t ready for clinical use yet. Most likely, that won’t happen for a few years. Now, she is working with her team and other researchers to learn more about this network of brain regions and to see if the NCS can predict how people with substance use disorders will respond to treatment.
She said that would make this neuromarker a powerful way to figure out how to treat someone.
Kober said, “Our hope is that the brain, and specifically the NCS as a stable biological indicator, might help us not only figure out who has a substance use disorder and why people’s outcomes vary, but also who will respond best to certain treatments.”
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