Using Neuroscience To Help Addicts Kick the Habit

A Pakistani heroin addict holds a syringe

Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last few months, media outlets like the New York Times and the Scientist have hosted discussions about whether vaccines could one day help addicts stay clean. Unlike childhood inoculations, an anti-addiction shot would be given to people with serious addictions, rather than as a preventative measure. While the idea has its detractors, addicts who don’t respond to traditional treatments in rehab or with AA meetings are eager to try a new, science-based method to fight their demons.

Now another approach is entering the fray. It’s early days yet—very early—but Baylor University’s David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, and Virginia Tech’s Stephen LaConte, a neuroimaging expert, hope to use fMRI scanners to help addicts understand their cravings and learn how to fight them.

I spoke to Eagleman at Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico, after he gave a talk about possibilianism, his theory that we have too much scientific evidence to accept most religious traditions, but too little proof to reject the idea of a deity entirely. Eagleman described the pilot experiment he and LaConte carried out recently to investigate their theory that addicts could, essentially, learn how to retrain their brains to resist cravings—for drugs, but also for child pornography and other dangerous addictions.

“Just last week, we actually scanned our first cocaine addict, who is someone who wants to quit but has not been able to. This has essentially ruined his life,” Eagleman says. He describes what happened:

We put him in the scanner … and we showed him pictures of cocaine. That activates the craving networks in his brain. We measured that on the fly, and we represented [the measurement] as a bar on the screen. His job is to make that bar go down. He’s getting visual representation of what’s happening inside his skull. It’s something you would not normally have conscious access to. … He was totally good at it. We said, “Now crave.” Bar goes up. “Now, do what you can to suppress your craving.” He got good at making the bar go down.

As an addict learns what thoughts make the cravings go down, Eagleman and LaConte hypothesize, he can build up his ability to resist, like working out a muscle. Eagleman calls it “the prefrontal gym.”

Now the pair hopes to try this out with other addicts and figure out whether the technique is replicable in the real world. If it works, it could complement the existing treatment techniques for addicts. Eagleman is particularly hopeful that it could help prisoners who, he says, usually know right from wrong but can’t resist the impulse to commit a crime. We may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but perhaps these innovative techniques could help reduce demand for illegal drugs in the United States. As Eagleman and I sit here in Mexico, home of a drug war between cartels vying to supply the U.S. with cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other narcotics, it’s clear that anything that could dent the American craving for a high is worth investigating.