Scientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have discovered impaired neuronal activity in occasional users of stimulant drugs. An internal hard wiring of the brain may be the reason some people become prone to drug addiction. The implication of the study is the possibility of using brain pattern activity to identify people who are at risk before they become addicted or when they exhibit addictive type behavior.

At the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine researchers recorded brain activity via fMRI. The participants were given instructions to press a button when they saw a specific image, but not if they heard a sound in 288 trails measuring reaction times and errors on the assigned task. The study compared the brains of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 years old that occasionally used cocaine, amphetamines or similar drugs to those of a “stimulant naïve” control group.

The reaction times of occasional users were actually faster on the first part of the trials, implying more impulsiveness compared to the control group. On the next part, the same group made more mistakes, which became worse as the tasks became more difficult. The difference in the two groups of people was notable.

“We used to think that drug addicts just did not hold themselves back but this work suggests that the root of this is an impaired ability to anticipate a situation and to detect trends in when they need to stop,” said Katia Harlé, a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s lead author.

Next, the researchers want to discover whether this impaired neuronal activity is permanent or can be re-wired.

It may be possible to “exercise” weak areas of the brain, where attenuated neuronal activity is associated with higher tendency to addiction.

This would offer hope of early intervention thus preventing the damage that stimulants can cause to brain function and the measurable difference of physical reaction performance.

Not using any stimulant drug is the best choice to make as even casual or occasional users risk the possibility of addiction later on. Make the right choice and just don’t start! But, if you have recently used cocaine or stimulants, consider seeking professional advice if you need help quitting. Our brains are not something to mess with!