According to researchers, new treatments aimed at strengthening inhibitory control could help Cocaine abusers prevent cravings and therefore relapse.
The study revealed that when asked to inhibit their response to a "cocaine-cues" video, active cocaine abusers were, on average, able to suppress activity in brain regions linked to drug craving.
"Exposure to drugs or stimuli associated with using drugs is one of the most common factors leading to relapse in drug-addicted individuals," said Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and lead author on the paper.
"We know from previous studies that drug cues can trigger dramatic changes in the brain that are linked to a strong craving response," added co-author Gene-Jack Wang, Chair of Brookhaven's medical department.
The expert added: "This study provides the first evidence that cocaine abusers retain some ability to cognitively inhibit their craving responses to drug-related cues."
In the study, scientists used a brain-scanning technique called positron emission tomography (PET) and a radioactively "tagged" form of glucose - the brain's main fuel - to measure brain activity in 24 active cocaine abusers during three different conditions: 1) while subjects simply lay in the scanner with eyes open; 2) while subjects watched a "cocaine-cues" video with scenes simulating the purchase, preparation, and smoking of crack cocaine; and 3) while subjects watched the video but were told to try to inhibit their craving response.
When active cocaine users watched a video showing people taking cocaine and other cocaine-associated cues, the related brain area became more activated which indicates that they were craving the drug.
When the subjects were told to inhibit their craving while watching the cocaine-cues video (cognitive inhibition), activity in the brain regions decreased.
The researchers say this deactivation is a way for the brain to "tune out" the cocaine cues and is an indication of their ability to inhibit craving.
"Many current drug treatment programs help addicted individuals predict when and where they might be exposed to drug cues so that they can avoid such situations," Volkow said.
"While this is a very useful strategy, in real-word situations, cues may come up in unexpected ways. Our findings suggest that a clinical strategy that trains cocaine abusers to exert greater cognitive control could help them selectively inhibit the craving response whenever and wherever drug cues are encountered - whether expectedly or unexpectedly," Volkow added.
The study appears in upcoming issue of NeuroImage.