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China science

All in the mind: the study that could help treat addiction by looking at the wiring in drinkers’ and smokers’ brains

  • Joint study by British and Chinese scientists suggests drinkers are more likely to be motivated by reward, but smokers have a greater tendency towards impulsive behaviour
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 10:45pm

People with a tendency to drink or smoke may be driven by the wiring in different parts of the brain, according to a study by Chinese and British researchers that could provide important clues to help treat addiction.

The study found that smokers’ neural patterns indicated that they were more impulsive. By contrast, drinkers showed increased activity in a different part of the brain that suggested they may be more motivated by the rewards associated with drinking alcohol.

The study, conducted by Fudan University in Shanghai and Warwick University, looked at the connectivity patterns in the brains of 2,000 participants.

Cheng Wei, one of the lead researchers from Fudan University, said the study, published in eLife on Tuesday, was the first to highlight the differences in the brain’s functional connectivity found in smokers and drinkers.

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“What we have found can be a base for clinical or pharmaceutical research in identifying targets, to alter addicts’ behaviours,” Cheng continued.

He said that even consuming small amounts of alcohol and tobacco changed the connectivity patterns in the relevant parts of the brain – even when small amounts of alcohol and tobacco were consumed.

It is already known that substance addiction – including nicotine, alcohol and drugs – is related to the parts of the brain that are strongly associated with motivation and reward.

But before now there was a lack of solid evidence to identify the relevant neuro-circuits or how these control people’s behaviour.

The two-year study looked at brain scans of smokers, drinkers and people who abstained from both alcohol and tobacco.

The study found that increased functional connectivity in the reward-related part of the brain, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, meant people were more likely to be attracted to the rewards from drinking alcohol.

By contrast smoking was linked to lower connectivity in the punishment-related regions of the brain, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which makes people more impulsive.

Feng Jianfeng, director of Fudan University’s Institute of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence, said the study advanced understanding of the neurological bases of smoking and drinking and provided new evidence on the different neurological mechanisms related to these two addictive behaviours.

Cheng said the study analysed MRI imaging from the databases of America’s Human Connectome Project and Europe’s brain development and mental health project IMAGEN.

“At first we didn’t know what we could get from these data sets,” Cheng said.

“We even focused on a different direction: the difference between male and female addicts.

“But as our research was carried on, we concentrated our effects on connectivity study.”

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He said similar research could also be used to treat drug addiction as most scientists believed the mechanisms in the brain that governed the behaviour would be similar to that of drinkers or smokers.

The research could prove particularly helpful in China, the world’s largest cigarette consumer with more than 300 million regular smokers.

The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that about one-fifth of the country’s population drank alcohol at least once a week, with 26 per cent of males and 11 per cent of females drinking every day, according to The Beijing News.

The centre’s research also found that compared with non-smokers, smokers had a higher tendency to drink alcohol.