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Cravings, Emotions Use Same Part of Brain

Study May Reveal New Coping Strategies for Cravings and Addiction
By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

cognitive_regulation_of_cravings_1.jpg

Aug. 2, 2010 -- Regulating cravings to smoke a cigarette or eat junk food may involve the same mechanisms in the brain used to regulate emotions, a finding which could help develop coping strategies for people struggling with addiction.

This finding is based on brain scans collected from cigarette smokers.The researchers used cigarette smokers in their study because smoking is the most common form of substance use disorder in the United States and is a behavior that is also linked to cravings. The results of their research are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cravings and Emotions

Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., wanted to evaluate what was going on in the brains of smokers when they were asked to perform a task designed to test how cravings are regulated, meaning whether patients refrained from what they knew wasn’t good for them or if they succumbed to the craving.

At the start of the study, participants reported cravings for high-fat food and cigarettes. They were then given a task, which involved looking at pictures of smoking or eating and the words “Now” or “Later.” In the “Now” group, the participants were asked to think about the immediate consequences of consuming the particular substance.  Participants in the “Later” group were asked to consider the long-term consequences of repeatedly consuming the substance. This allowed researchers to gauge participants’  amount of cravings for nicotine or food  and the change in the level of craving when considering the potential longer-term effects of eating high-fat foods or smoking.

The researchers found that the region of the brain associated with regulating emotions, the prefrontal cortex, also appeared to show increased activity when decisions about cravings were taking place. The prefrontal cortex has been linked to complex cognitive behaviors, including personality expression, decision making, and social behaviors.

The researchers found that decreases in cravings correlated with decreases in a region of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is associated with drug craving and reward-seeking behavior.

Substance abuse is a major public health problem. In the United States, about 43 million Americans or 20% of U.S. adults smoke, and 8% of people age 12 and older have used an illicit drug in the previous month, according to the CDC.

The results suggest that cravings involve neural dynamics parallel to those regulating emotions,the authors say.

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