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This is your brain on drugs ...

New tool maps brain's reaction to cravings

brain December 16, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Why do some people become alcoholics, while most don't? Are the brains of addicts different from those who use drugs and never become addicted?

Researchers hope to answer such questions with a new, $6-million tool, a brain imaging center dedicated by the National Institutes of Health Monday.

"This is the first time we've had a facility like this that's totally dedicated to studying the brain mechanisms of addiction," said Alan Leschner, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a branch of the NIH.


The new center is equipped with a state-of-the-art Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging camera, and a cyclotron that makes radioactive tracers used to follow brain activity.

Using this machine, researchers hope to map out the part of the brain that they believe controls cravings.

"One of the things we are able to do with this technology is actually look at the brain as the individual is experiencing drug cravings and get a sense of the brain mechanisms that underlay that experience itself," said Leschner.


Edythe London, the director of the new Brain Imaging Center, said the center will also be useful in answering a lot of other questions about why drugs make some people high, and how to treat drug addicts.

"What's wrong with this brain, now that drugs have been there, and are possibly no longer in the system anymore? Do we need to treat this person in some different way because their brain chemistry has been altered? And in what way has this brain been altered?" London said.

Researchers already know that brain activity is reduced in people taking cocaine and heroin, and they have seen changes in the brains of cocaine addicts compared to those who don't use drugs.


But, London said, the center's facilities may answer a crucial question tied to those changes: "What's unusual about this brain that might make this person more vulnerable to becoming an addict?"

Researchers plan to study the brains of smokers to learn how nicotine addiction changes the brain's chemistry. They hope to learn why it is so difficult for a smoker to quit.

The center will also be helpful for the government as it continues its war against drug addiction. At the center's dedication ceremony, drug policy chief Gen. Barry McCaffrey emphasized the importance of the center in understanding drug addiction before setting government policy on drugs.

"I know more about North Korean nuclear weapons than I do about who's using heroin and why," he said.


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