Several years back, Bill White pointed out that we’ve learned an enormous amount about the neurobiology of addiction but know nothing about the neurobiology of recovery.
This week, a small study focused on just that:
The researchers performed several tests to assess changes in the “brain reward system” during early recovery. After drug withdrawal, many people with opioid dependence have “persistent changes in the reward and memory circuits”—they may experience heightened “rewards” or “pleasure” in response to drugs and related stimuli, but greatly reduced responses to naturally pleasurable stimuli (such as good food, or friendship).
Dr. Bunce explains, “This is thought to occur because opiates are potent stimulators of the brain’s reward system; over time, the brain adapts to the high level of stimulation provided by opiates, and naturally rewarding stimuli can’t measure up.” Such dysregulation of the natural reward system may contribute to the high risk of relapse during recovery.
The test results showed several significant differences in the reward system between groups. A test of startle reflexes showed that patients with recent drug withdrawal had reduced pleasure responses to “natural reward” stimuli—for example, pictures of appetizing foods or people having fun.
In brain activity studies, patients with recent drug withdrawal showed heightened responses to drug-related cues, such as pictures of pills. In the extended-care patients, these increased responses to drug cues—in a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, involved in attention and self-control —were significantly reduced.
Patients who had recently withdrawn from opiates also had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol (adrenaline). In the patients who had been drug-free for a few months, cortisol levels were somewhat reduced, although not quite as low as in healthy controls. The recently withdrawn group also had pronounced sleep disturbances, while sleep in the extended care group was similar to controls.
All of these changes—brain and hormonal responses to drug cues and natural rewards, as well as sleep disturbances—were correlated with abstinence time. The more days since the patient used drugs, the lower the abnormal responses.
The study supports past research showing dysregulation of the reward system during early recovery from opioid dependence. It also provides evidence that these responses may become re-regulated during several weeks in residential treatment—a period of “clinically documented” abstinence from opioids.
That’s a potentially important step forward in addiction medicine research, Dr. Bunce believes. “It shows that if the patient remains in treatment and off drugs for several months, the body’s natural reward systems may have the capacity to return toward normal, making it easier for them to remain drug-free outside the treatment setting.” With further study, tests of the natural reward system might provide useful, objective markers of recovery—clinical tests that help to evaluate how the patient’s recovery is proceeding.
It is a small study, but it challenges the notion that the brains of opioid addicts are damaged in a permanent way that requires opioid maintenance treatment.
Another recent study compared one year outcomes for 12 step facilitation residential treatment and office-based buprenorphine treatment.
A study from the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Addiction Services found that a monthlong, 12-step-based residential program with strong linkage to community-based follow-up care enabled almost 30 percent of opioid-dependent participants to remain abstinent a year later. Another recent study found that 83 percent of those who entered an office-based opioid treatment program had dropped out a year later.
“Our results suggest that abstinence-focused, 12-step residential treatment may be able to help young adults recover from opioid addiction through a different pathway than the more typical outpatient approach incorporating buprenorphine/naloxone treatment,” said John Kelly of the Center for Addiction Medicine in the MGH Department of Psychiatry.
. . .
“Our study emphasizes the importance of strong linkage between residential treatment and continuing care,” says Schuman-Olivier, who also is with the Outpatient Addiction Services at Cambridge Health Alliance. “Right now there is a huge gap between residential and community services in many health systems. Yes, residential treatment can be costly, but with an opioid-dependence epidemic that has led to frequent overdose deaths, it’s important to think about what works, not just costs. We have evidence that outpatient treatment for opioid dependence is not as effective in young adults as it is in older adults, so we need alternatives to protect this vulnerable population.”
Now, 30% is not what we’d like to see, BUT the average duration of residential treatment in this study was only 25 days. (It did not describe the continuing care that the patients received.) These outcomes are also much better than recent studies on buprenorphine retention with young patients and drug use outcomes.