Novelty Could Help Prevent Relapse in Recovering Addicts

The brain’s natural interest in things that are new and different could help overcome the power of addictive drugs, according to new research from the American Psychological Association. In an animal study, the researchers found that novelty helped draw cocaine-addicted rats away from the areas where they received cocaine, suggesting that it can help prevent relapse—especially in those with risk-taking personalities. Areas where drug use takes place can trigger relapse in many recovering addicts, so this discovery could be very important for addiction treatment.

Carmela Reichel, PhD, and Rick Bevins, PhD, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, trained rats to go to one side of a large apparatus by giving them injections of cocaine before placing them on that side. Over eight days, the rats were alternated to one side or the other, and were either given cocaine or a saline solution before being placed.

When the rats were drug free and allowed to choose which side of the apparatus to go to, they were significantly more likely to choose the side where they were placed when they were given cocaine.

In the next stage of the study, the researchers introduced novelty for another eight days, trying to break the association between cocaine and place. When rats were placed on the saline side, half of them found something new, such as a sock, a piece of plastic, or a ball of newspaper. The other half had the same empty surroundings. Then the rats were given saline instead of cocaine, and on alternate days, were either placed on the side associated with cocaine or with novelty. (This is comparable to drug addicts returning to places where they have used drugs.)

Next, rats that were treated with saline were placed between the compartments to see which side they would choose. Rats that had been given a smaller amount of cocaine and then were given novel objects went back and forth between both compartments, and rats that did not receive novel objects (drugged or not) spent more time where they had been given cocaine. Rats that had been given more cocaine and then received novel objects preferred the cocaine side to the novelty side. These findings suggested that novelty could help recovering addicts who weren’t heavy users.

In another experiment, the procedure was repeated with just one dose of cocaine to test the effect 1, 14, or 28 days after establishing the preference for the cocaine compartment. Two weeks later, novelty still affected the compartment choice for drug-free rats. Four weeks later, though, the rats (drug-free or not) didn’t show a preference for either side.

The authors said that by understanding how novelty can compete with the power of addictive drugs, researchers could use the idea of new and intriguing “toys” in treatment, or behavioral rewards such as outdoor activities. They noted that novelty does not involve medication or side effects, and could be less expensive than medical treatment.

The authors conclude that by implementing novel rewards targeted to people with risk-taking tendencies, recovering addicts may have a better chance at avoiding relapse.

Source: Science Daily, Novelty Lures Rats from Cocaine-Paired Settings, Hinting at New Treatments for Recovering Addicts, February 5, 2010

Posted on February 2nd, 2010

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