Hacking the Brain to Prevent Addiction Relapse

As the opioid crisis in the US reaches national emergency status, a high rate of relapse into drug use continues to hamper those trying to shake addictions. About 80–90 percent of people who suffer from addiction return to drug use within a year.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers in the MnDRIVE Brain Conditions initiative are exploring how a specific connection between two regions of the brain could predict when those recovering from drug addiction might relapse—and how best to intervene before that happens. Researchers have noted that the connection between the brain’s decision-making center (prefrontal cortex) and reward center (nucleus accumbens) tends to be stronger in people who successfully avoid relapse after quitting drug use.

Dr. Kelvin Lim, psychiatry professor in the U’s Medical School, aims to strengthen that brain connection to see how it improves recovery from addiction. First, Lim and his team are using mild electric current, delivered without surgery on the scalp, to stimulate research participants’ brains to boost their plasticity—and their ability to learn and adapt.

During the stimulation, Lim will ask the participants to complete brain-training exercises designed to build and strengthen the cognitive functions that affect the decision-making center and the reward center. Researchers will give the participants a set of rules to follow for each exercise, such as selecting all of the red objects from a collection of objects that are different shapes and colors. Once they complete the task, the rules will change, and the participant will have to adapt to the new rules in place of the old ones.

“We use the brain stimulation to make the brain as plastic as possible, and then use that extra learning ability to develop cognitive skills that protect against relapse,” Lim said.

Brain stimulation with brain-training exercises are like using dietary supplements with exercise, he added. They don’t do much on their own, but pair them together, and there are bound to be results. Train the brain to resist relapse when it’s most plastic, and the training is more likely to stick.

The study could help in developing a new standard for predicting and treating relapse. A treatment based on brain stimulation and cognitive exercises may provide greater effectiveness over time, Lim said, than prescription drugs.

The clinical study is being led by Jazmin Camchong, Ph.D., assistant professor of in the Department of Psychiatry. The study started with a focus on alcoholism, but could expand to tackle addiction to other drugs if successful. So far, the team has recruited and scanned the brains of about 11 people who recently quit drinking, and then received brain stimulation and cognitive behavioral training.

As the study progresses, the scans will be repeated  to see whether the treatment affects the brain connection in question, and how many participants experience a relapse.

Enhancing Research through Brain Conditions Cores

Lim’s project is just one of the many University studies underway that aim to use advanced techniques to change brain activity and treat a wide range of diseases (see how other University researchers are working to end addiction). The three MnDRIVE Brain Condition cores, highlighted below, provide researchers with the support, training and equipment needed to conduct these studies.

Dr. Timothy Ebner, Ph.D., chair of the MnDRIVE Brain Conditions Steering Committee and head of the Department of Neuroscience, said the MnDRIVE cores—open to researchers across the University as well as industry partners—have helped researchers develop new collaborations and compete successfully for federal research funding.

“The MnDRIVE cores are essential to enhancing the University’s capacity for world-class neuromodulation research and clinical care,” said Dr. Timothy Ebner, Ph.D., chair of the MnDRIVE Brain Conditions Steering Committee and head of the Department of Neuroscience. “With a relatively modest investment in equipment, supplies and expert staff, we have created a set of core resources that allow many researchers to engage in research they would not otherwise have been able to do.”

Deep Brain Stimulation Core

Through a device implanted in the brain, deep brain stimulation delivers electrical currents to specific areas of the brain to alter brain activity and treat brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, dystonia (involuntary muscle movements), obsessive-compulsive disorder, in clinical trials, depression. The MnDRIVE Deep Brain Stimulation Core supports researchers using this treatment method and builds collaborations with industry partners.

The core provides:

  • Research services (including grant development, study design, regulatory support, clinical trial coordination, and data management/analysis)
  • Clinical services (including clinical care coordination and community outreach about deep brain stimulation)

Contact Eric Maurer, emaurer@umn.edu, for more information.

Noninvasive Neuromodulation Core

There are several techniques for studying and changing brain activity noninvasively—without the need for surgery—including transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial current stimulation. The Noninvasive Neuromodulation Core assists researchers in studies using noninvasive neuromodulation techniques to examine brain activity in specific regions of the brain and to test experimental treatments for brain disorders like stroke, cerebral palsy, dystonia, Tourette syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease.

The core provides:

  • Academic consultation (including grant development; study design; computer-assisted simulation and modeling; and data collection, processing, and analysis)
  • Technical training and support (including equipment operation and customizing experimental systems)
  • Access to equipment and resources

Contact Mo Chen, mchen@umn.edu, for more information.

Optogenetics Core

Optogenetic and chemogenetic techniques—which use light-sensitive proteins and custom-made drug compounds, respectively—give researchers the ability to control activity in selectively targeted brain cells and circuits.

The MnDRIVE Optogenetics Core helps labs understand and make use of these research tools to study normal brain function as well as dysfunction in animal models of neurological disease. The core provides:

  • Technical training and assistance (including data collection and equipment setup)
  • Academic assistance (including grant development and data analysis)
  • Equipment and reagents for optogenetics and chemogenetics research

Contact Erin Larson, larso323@umn.edu, for more information.