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Uni. of Cambridge: Biology ‘Significant’ in Addiction

Young adults at risk of developing problems with addiction show key differences in an important region of the brain, according to an international team led by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

The study adds further evidence to support the idea that an individual’s biological makeup plays a significant role in whether or not they develop an addictive disorder.

It is during adolescence that individuals begin to demonstrate behaviours that are associated with addiction and which suggest that they may be at risk.

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One of these behaviours is impulsivity.

While most people occasionally act impulsively, people affected by substance and behavioural addictions, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, show much greater levels of impulsivity.

In a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, a team of researchers at Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry has shown a strong association between increased behavioural impulsivity in young adults and abnormalities in nerve cells in the putamen.

The putamen is a key brain region involved in addictive disorders.

As part of the study, 99 young adults aged 16 to 26 carried out a computer-based measure of impulsivity.

The researchers also scanned the volunteers’ brains using a sequence that is sensitive to myelin content.

Myelin is a protein-rich sheath that coats the axis of a nerve cell, analogous to the plastic coating that surrounds electrical wiring, and is essential to fast nerve conduction in the brain and body.

The team found that those young adults who displayed higher measures of behavioural impulsivity also had lower levels of myelin in the putamen.

This work builds on similar findings in rodent models of impulsivity from scientists at Cambridge and elsewhere.

Dr Camilla Nord of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Uni. of Cambridge, said: “People who show heightened impulsivity are more likely to experience a number of mental health issues, including substance and behavioural addictions, eating disorders, and ADHD.”

This suggests that impulsivity is an ‘endophenotype’, say the researchers; in other words, a set of behavioural and brain changes that increases people’s general risk for developing a group of psychiatric and neurological disorders.

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