Drug addicts and non-addicts may have more in common than ever thought, according to a researcher at Texas A&M University who found that to some degree, everyone's brain is "wired" to become addicted.
In "What is Abnormal About Addiction-Related Attentional Biases?" an article in press in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Psychology Professor Brian Anderson argues that normal people show many of the same biases as people who are addicted to drugs.
"This suggests that these seemingly 'pathological features' of addiction may in fact reflect a normal cognitive process -- that we are all to some degree 'wired' to become addicted," he explains.
Anderson, who specializes in cognitive neuroscience, says one of the features that characterizes addiction is strong attentional biases for drug cues. "Attentional bias is a tendency to direct your attention to something even when it conflicts with your goals, making it difficult to ignore," he notes. "A drug cue is something that serves as a predictive cue for the experience of the drug. An example would be a syringe in the case of an injectable drug, or a bong in the case of a drug that is inhaled."
He says when an individual becomes addicted to a substance, stimuli associated with that substance have a powerful ability to capture the attention of the individual, a phenomenon not shown in people without a history of substance abuse.
But Anderson theorized that attentional biases for drug cues reflect a normal cognitive process by which we are "wired" to automatically direct our attention to learned predictors of reward. Although they may appear abnormal, these same sorts of biases can be seen in normal, healthy people.
To prove his assertion, he asked participants to first perform a task in which they were rewarded with money for finding simple colored objects. Then participants performed a second task in which the previously rewarded objects were irrelevant and no longer rewarded. "The ability to ignore these previously reward-associated objects are assessed under a variety of conditions," he explains.
What Anderson found was that previously reward-associated objects that had nothing to do with drugs drew attention and influenced behavior in the same ways that drug cues do in drug-addicted patients. "That is, the attentional biases were evident even when they conflicted with current goals, they lasted a long time, they were mediated by many of the same brain regions, and they facilitated action towards the stimulus," he notes. "Drug-addicted patients also showed stronger attentional biases for non-drug reward cues, suggesting that a more general sensitivity to reward's influence on attention may play a role in addictive behaviors."
What these findings suggest, says Anderson, is that we all have addiction-like tendencies in how we perceive the world -- that we are influenced by reward learning in ways that are sometimes beyond our control.
"Personally, I find that humbling," he says. "I think this is important to keep in mind when we try to make sense of why we and others we know do the things we do. Where we look and what we pursue are not always a reflection of our current conscious intentions. Rather, automatic biases are a normal part of life that we need to either consciously work against or replace with healthier habits when the ones we have led to bad outcomes."
He says it's also important to bear in mind when considering treatments for addiction that, "The information-processing biases that we know to be important for addiction are not a unique consequence of drug use, and curbing drug use itself will not necessarily curb the 'pull' from tempting situations that can trigger relapse. In order to treat addiction, we have to curb a normal cognitive process."
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