May 26, 2011
Substance abuse can have dramatic consequences on the brain and behavior. The traditional way of preventing drug abuse is often education. Awareness programs do work with people who can picture long-term repercussions of abusing drugs. Other people, most often those vulnerable to addictions, do not benefit from such programs. It seems that they tend to devalue both rewards and punishments that will happen in the future, a behavior known as delay discounting. This leads them to opt for immediate rewards, such as those provided by drugs, and ignore future consequences.
Would it be possible then to train the brain of these people so that they show less delay discounting? Would that help them stay away from addictive substances?
Delay discounting is a brain function that involves the frontal lobes of the brain (behind the forehead). It builds upon working memory, our mental workspace where information necessary for the task at hand is hold and used.
Dr. Bikel and colleagues thus designed a study in which stimulants abusers participated in either a working memory training or a control training. They found that working memory training triggered a decrease in delay discounting. In other words, working memory training reduced the substance abusers’ devaluation of long-term rewards.
It is not known so far whether training working memory would indeed help in reducing the abuse itself but this is a very promising study. It may open the door to new substance abuse treatments, based on brain training.
Related post: What is Working Memory? Can it Be Trained?