Mindfulness Intervention May Help Prevent Drug Addiction
Participation in a specific form of mindfulness training may help prevent the underlying pleasure imbalances that foster and support drug addiction, according to recent findings from a team of U.S. researchers.
Among other things, drug addiction is characterized by long-term changes in the brain’s ability to respond appropriately to pleasurable sensations. In a study published in late 2014 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers from three American universities assessed the impact of the practice of mindfulness on the odds of developing these damaging brain changes. Specifically, the researchers looked at the usefulness of a particular approach to mindfulness-based intervention called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement or MORE.
Addiction and Pleasure Imbalance
Humans rely on a brain area known informally as the pleasure center to sense and interpret the favorable sensations associated with such things as having sex, eating and taking part in recreational activities. The basis for this arrangement is largely evolution-based; essentially, this means that humans tend to want to do things that keep them alive or otherwise promote a sense of well-being. When they travel through the bloodstream and enter the brain, the vast majority of all mind-altering substances also trigger favorable sensations inside the pleasure center. However, as a rule, the amount of pleasure produced by these substances far outstrips the amount of pleasure naturally produced by involvement in non-substance-related activities.
Unfortunately, once they start drinking or using mind-altering drugs or medications, some people develop a preference for the relatively extreme amounts of pleasure associated with these activities. In turn, repeated use of drugs and alcohol can change the chemical balance in the pleasure center, as well as the ways in which the brain uses its pleasure-producing chemicals. Substance addiction is the end result of long-term, substance-related changes inside the pleasure center. Among its many damaging effects, addiction typically causes affected individuals to severely discount or disregard the life-sustaining pleasure associated with non-addiction-related activities. In effect, this tendency indicates the presence of a pleasure imbalance.
Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement
Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement was developed by researchers at the University of Utah. As its name implies, the approach is partially based on mindfulness, a Buddhism-inspired (but nonreligious) practice designed to help people slow down and recognize and acknowledge moment-to-moment changes in their thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Benefits of mindfulness with at least some support from modern research efforts include stress relief, improved immune system function, reduced chances of becoming obese and increased chances of performing well in school. MORE is specifically designed to help people affected by or at risk for addiction-related issues. In addition to mindfulness principles, it incorporates principles from a psychotherapeutic technique called cognitive behavioral therapy (commonly used in addiction treatment), as well as a psychological approach called positive psychology.
MORE’s Usefulness in Addiction Prevention
In the study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers from the University of Utah, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assessed the usefulness of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement as a way to help people avoid the imbalanced pleasure reactions that characterize addiction. Specifically, the researchers assessed the usefulness of MORE in people affected by chronic pain who were identified as at risk for the development of opioid use disorder (opioid abuse and/or addiction). A total of 29 individuals took part in this small-scale project. Eleven of the participants received a MORE-based intervention for two months; the remaining 18 participants took part in a more generalized support group for people with elevated opioid abuse/addiction risks.
To measure the impact of the MORE intervention, the researchers repeatedly showed the members of both study groups images designed to promote natural pleasure responses inside the brain. They also measured electrical changes in the brain that reflect the ability to feel pleasure. After completing their work, the researchers concluded that the participants who received Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement had an increased response to the pleasure-generating effects of the images. These individuals also displayed gradually decreasing levels of opioid craving. This is critically important, since opioid craving levels help determine any given individual’s chances of developing an opioid addiction.
Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that it may be possible to use MORE and similar techniques to preemptively reduce or eliminate the preference for substance-based pleasure that helps establish addiction and supports ongoing involvement in addiction-related activities.