A new study that looked at brain activity in 50 cocaine users found a possible explanation for why users of the drug may continue their use even when experiencing negative consequences. The study discovered that when compared with healthy individuals, cocaine users failed to trigger signals that allow people to change behavior to avoid poor outcomes.
Published Feb. 3 in The Journal of Neuroscience, the study used a gambling game to measure participants' “Reward Prediction Error” (RPE), or the measured difference between a likely reward or loss and an individual's ability to predict that outcome. Fifty cocaine users had impaired loss prediction signaling compared with 25 healthy non-users, meaning they were failing to trigger RPE signals in response to worse-than-expected outcomes in the gambling game.
Researchers at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York also found that the cocaine users who had taken the drug more recently prior to the exercise had higher electrical activity in the brain when an unpredicted win occurred in the game. “These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that in addiction the drug is taken to normalize a certain brain function...,” states a news release from Mount Sinai.
These findings could lead to the ability to predict susceptibility to addiction, according to researchers. They also could result in the development of targeted interventions.