Addiction Changes the Way We Learn

Addiction Changes the Way We Learn

When I look at my children at play, I am fascinated by the ways in which they learn. Learning is a brain event and there are times I imagine I can almost see my kids’ brains working and developing as they play and learn. Everything that we do, whether motor, sensory or cognitive, requires networks of neurons to generate new activity patterns in our brains. These new patterns are how we experience learning.

A team of researchers from the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh were able to provide a theoretical representation for brain limitations during learning. In other words, they may be able to show us what prevents individuals from learning. This could give scientists a better understanding of how addiction changes the brain and affects the recovery process.

In the recent study, animals were shown to be able to control specific neural activity patterns that were from previously learned activities. Consider these non-study-related examples as an illustration. If animals knew how to open a door by pushing a lever, they would be easily able to learn similar activities. However, animals were less able to learn to control activity patterns that were not previously learned. An animal that could push a lever to open a door would have no idea how to put a ball into a basket – a completely unrelated activity – and would not learn that task as quickly as it would an activity related to a lever. These results suggest that it is difficult to learn to generate neural activity patterns that are not consistent with the existing network structure. Think of it like this; if you’ve never been introduced to math, astrophysics will be incomprehensible; but if you speak three languages, learning a fourth will be relatively easy. The brain develops by adding on to existing structures and learning patterns.

The research findings explain the observation that we are better able to learn new skills when they are related to the skills that we already possess. The researchers speculate that the results provide a basis for a neural explanation for the balance between adaptability and persistence in action and thought.

Dr. Aaron P. Batista, one of the researchers of the study explained:

We knew from experience that some things are learned more readily than others. We now understand a bit on why some things are learned easier than others.”

What does this mean for addiction? Addictive behaviors consist of a compulsion to engage in an action repeatedly, regardless of negative consequences to the person’s physical, mental, social, and/or financial well-being. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, takes a role in the learning and sustaining of many acquired behaviors. Addiction causes the addict to repeat a particular behavior due to the dopamine reward system – a system that in some ways can be described as being haywire or off kilter in addicts. This keeps the addict trapped in perpetuating the same behavior again and again – in essence, not learning from the negative consequences of their actions.

When certain behaviors become habitual, they become problematic to one’s health and happiness. Once a person with substance use disorderion is triggered, it is hard to work away from activating the dopamine reward system. Therefore, special treatment that works to change the structure and function of the brain is necessary. Behavioral treatment approaches to addiction help engage people by providing incentives to remain abstinent and modify related attitudes and behaviors. This is why recovery can be a slow process that may require an extended stay in a treatment center and later in outpatient services.


Richard Taite
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