Addiction science is a rapidly evolving field. We’re learning so much about the underlying components of addiction, which then aids in treatment.
There are doctors that claim technology for specific brain scans, including PET scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan), brain CT scans, functional brain imaging, SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography), are helping us learn so much and can be the solution to help people get over addiction by looking at the brain functionality of a person with addictions by using brain scans or brain mapping.
This is a huge claim, and one that is potentially dangerous to make it if doesn’t have the support of the scientific and addiction communities alike. This article will help explore the question “Do brain scans help cure addiction?”
How Addiction Affects the Brain
Addiction is a brain disease. When you have an addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, you can’t stop using drugs or alcohol even though you’re experiencing negative consequences from your use.
When you’re an addict, your behavior is the result of your brain’s executive functions, and urges may feel out of your control. Even though you probably know the physical, mental and social harm your drug or alcohol use is causing you, you can’t stop.
You’ll experience changes in your thinking, behavior, and even how your body functions when you’re using drugs, and when you’re craving using drugs.
Developing a Substance Use Disorder
Not everyone goes through the development of a substance use disorder. Many people use alcohol or even drugs recreationally. Those differences in who develops a substance use disorder and who doesn’t can be due to many factors.
For example, genetics, environmental factors, and underlying mental health disorders can contribute to a substance use disorder.
Using an addictive substance creates a surge of chemicals that make you feel good, directly into your brain’s pleasure and reward centers. For example, dopamine floods certain parts of your brain at an artificially high level.
As is the case with any other disease, addiction changes the function of a critical organ—your brain. The same can be said of heart disease or diabetes. Brain map reports show repeated drug or alcohol use changes the human brain and creates different pathways. Your brain structure goes through alterations, as does your cognitive function.
If you have a loved one struggling with addiction, understanding these chronic brain effects and differences in brain activity (blood flowing) can help you empathize with that person. It’s debilitating to deal with the disease of addiction, and it’s complex.
The effects of addiction on brain function are one reason that if you find advice for loved ones of addicts, you’ll often see the number one thing you can do is educate yourself.
Brain regions significantly affected by substances and play a role in driving addiction include:
- Basal ganglia: This part of our brain plays a role in motivation and helps us feel pleasure. We typically have a natural reward system, where something like sex or a great meal activates this part of the brain. When you use drugs or alcohol, your natural reward system is less sensitive. It’s difficult to feel pleasure without substances.
- Amygdala: Your amygdala creates emotions of anxiety and irritability. This part of the brain becomes increasingly sensitive to drug or alcohol use, and to avoid negative feelings, it will compel you to seek out substances.
- Prefrontal cortex: The frontal lobe of the brain plays a role in many vital functions, including planning and problem-solving. The prefrontal cortex also helps you have self-control over impulses. With drug and alcohol exposure, this part of the brain can contribute to compulsive use and a lack of control over your impulses.
How Do Brain Scans Help Addiction?
Researchers in health care are using different types of brain scan options to help learn more about addiction and maybe someday develop cures for it.
Brain scans help researchers compare the brain of an addict to the brain of someone who isn’t addicted.
They can see how there are differences in the different parts of the brain mentioned above. Along with being a crucial part of research now and going forward, other ways brain scans can be helpful include:
- Brain scans can help show the damage occurring because of drug or alcohol exposure. By learning more about the damage, it’s possible to know how to reverse or at least halt some of it. For example, a scan of your brain could show there’s damage to the areas of your brain that control your emotions. You can participate in therapy and activities that can help rebuild some of those pathways by seeing that.
- Learning about the disease of addiction and its effect on our brain reduces shame and stigma. For too long, an addiction we believed was an issue with willpower or a lack of morality. Thanks to looking at brain images and brain maps, we now know that that’s not the case. These images give us a powerful view of the effects on the brain of drugs and alcohol.
- When learning about brain imaging, family members and loved ones of people with a substance use disorder can feel more empathetic and supportive.
- Over time, you may be able to track your recovery progress by actually looking at your brain as it heals, which can be a powerful motivator.
What is Brain Mapping?
Brain mapping can help treatment providers and clinicians see patterns of dysfunction and mental health conditions in the brain. They can also take steps to alter brainwaves to balance the activity of your neurons.
- We increasingly see brain mapping can reduce cravings and be a positive part of recovery. Mapping the brain also helps customize treatment plans further.
- To map your brain, a clinician will use an electroencephalogram or EEG. There’s monitoring your brain’s impulses through a magnetic field, and then the data is turned into a visual format.
- The graphic shows your brain waves, and experts can then spot abnormalities that can indicate the effects of addiction or other mental health disorders.
- With the use of neurofeedback, it’s possible to pinpoint the best, most efficient ways to rebuild and retrain your brain. For example, the data is helpful to help break the habits that lead to drug use.
Brain mapping isn’t itself an addiction treatment; instead, it’s a collection of critical, personalized data points to guide treatment to ensure it’s as effective as possible.
Based on this information, your addiction treatment plan might include cognitive-behavioral and biofeedback therapy, relapse prevention training, and dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.
The Truth Behind Brain Scans and Addiction
A popular phrase in addiction treatment is “there’s no one size fits all approach to curing addiction”, the saying applies to the use of brain scans as well. While the results we find using brain scans are interesting, and it’s very good that there are scientists trying to utilize this information and approach treating mental illness from a different angle.
The information we gather using brain scans has not been proven to be accurate, or show a relevant correlation to mental disorders. For this reason, brain scans are not often used in a psychiatric capacity or covered by insurance.
There are famous doctors that ask “How come the brain is the only organ we don’t look at when something is wrong,” which is an interesting approach, and it’s a good thing there are people making the effort to see if there’s a smarter way to approach treatment. However, it’s irresponsible to claim using something like a brain scan will be the solution to your psychiatric problems (like addiction).
The truth is a brain scan for psychiatric issues is simply a diagnostic tool that doesn’t have accurate or proven scientific evidence supporting its benefit.
Since there’s no proven scientific evidence for brain scans in a psychiatric setting, insurance companies will usually not cover the costs. This doesn’t stop many people from believing this could be the solution to their problems and paying an independent doctor to perform a brain scan for psychiatric reasons anyway. The procedure can be costly, and the most popular psychiatric facility that uses brain scans will cost over $4,000 for a basic brain scan package.
If you don’t have a lot of extra money, or a good income, saving up for this procedure can leave you feeling disappointed and with new added financial stress.
On the other hand, the brain is a powerful organ and if you believe something hard enough it could manifest reactions. Some people believe fully that a brain scan will be the solution to their problems, and that belief alone does have benefits (even if it’s just temporary.)
One other aspect of brain scans that don’t typically get discussed is that sometimes the act of getting a brain scan can be detrimental to your health. Take SPECT imaging, for instance, there are doctors that want you to get a SPECT image of your brain so they can attempt to give you a holistic treatment plan to correct your brain functionality. Meanwhile, SPECT imaging uses a radioactive injection to get its imaging results.
Injecting radioactive material into your body is the opposite of holistic, and has been proven to be extremely harmful to the human body.
So no, brain scans do not help cure addiction. However, if you aren’t struggling financially and you’re willing to take a different approach, a brain scan may be a helpful diagnostic tool to get some extra insight into the way your mind works. Don’t let anybody convince you that a brain scan alone will solve any of your problems though, even after getting a brain scan you will still have to follow a doctor-recommended treatment plan to see any results.
Regardless of the specific approach that’s best for you, the most important detail you can remember is addiction is a chronic disease. As with any chronic illness, addiction requires proper medical treatment to help you manage the symptoms and improve your quality of life. While it can be challenging at times, you should also remember that you can heal and retrain your brain, even after long periods of alcohol or drug abuse.