Loss, but not absence, of control – How choice and addiction are related

In a recent post the notion that “loss of control” is an addiction myth was raised by our contributing author, Christopher Russell, a thoughtful graduate student studying substance abuse in the U.K. Though I obviously personally believe in control- and choice-relevant neurological mechanisms playing a part in addiction, this conversation is a common one both within and outside of the drug abuse field. Therefore, I welcome the discussion onto our pages. I’d like to start out by reviewing some of the more abstract differences between my view and the one expressed by Christopher and follow those with some evidence to support my view and refute the evidence brought forth by him.

Addiction conceptualization – Philosophical and logical differences and misinterpretations

One of the first issues I take with the argument against control as a major factor in drug addiction is the interpretation of the phrase “loss of control” as meaning absence, rather than a reduction, in control over addiction and addictive behavior. Clearly though, one of the definitions of loss is a “decrease in amount, magnitude, or degree” (from Merriam-Webster.com) and not the destruction of something. Science is an exercise in probabilities so when scientists say “loss”, they mean a decrease and not a complete absence in the same way that findings showing that smoking cigarettes causes cancer do not mean that if an individual smokes cigarettes they will inevitably develop cancerous tumors. Similarly, the word “can’t” colloquially means having a low probability of success and not the complete inability to succeed. Intervention that improve the probability of quitting smoking (like bupropion or quitlines for smoking) success are therefore said to cause improvements in the capacity for quitting.

Next, Christopher wants scientists to identify the source of “will” in the brain but I suggest that “will” itself is simply a term he has given a behavioral outcome – the ability to make a choice that falls in line with expectations. In actuality, “will” is more commonly used as a reference to motivation, which while measurable, isn’t really the aspect of addiction involved in cognitive control. Instead, what we’re talking about is “capacity” to make a choice. The issue is a significant, not semantic one, since the argument most neuroscientists make about drug abuse is that addicts suffer a reduced capacity to make appropriate behavioral choices, especially as they pertain to engaging in the addictive behavior of interest. If someone is attempting to get into a car but repeatedly fails, we say they can’t get in the car (capacity), not that they don’t want to (will). Saying that they simply “don’t” get in the car doesn’t get at either capacity or will but instead is simply descriptive. I don’t believe that science is, or should be, merely descriptive but instead that it allows us to form conclusions based on available information.

That there is a segment of individuals who develop compulsive behavioral patterns tied to alcohol and drug use and who attempt to stop but fail is, to my mind, evidence that those individuals have a difficulty (capacity) in stopping their drug use. Their motivation (will) to quit is an aspect that has been shown to be associated with their probability of success but the two are by no means synonymous. It is important to note, and understand, that the attribution for the performance should not fall squarely on the shoulders of the individuals. We humans are so prone to making that mistake that it has a name, “The fundamental attribution error,” and indeed, individuals who show compulsive, addictive, behavior do so because of neuropharmacological, environmental, and social reasons in addition to the complex interactions between them all. But no one is disputing that and in fact, the article used by Christopher to point out the notion of a “tipping point” in addiction directly points out that fact in the next paragraph (Page 4), which he chose not to reference or acknowledge.

“Of course, addiction is not that simple. Addiction is not just a brain disease. It is a brain disease for which the social contexts in which it has both developed and is expressed are critically important… The implications are obvious. If we understand addiction as a prototypical psychobiological illness, with critical biological, behavioral, and social-context components, our treatment strategies must include biological, behavioral, and social-context elements.” (Lashner, 1997)

Lastly, Christopher’s philosophical musings are interesting, but they seem to stray away from trying to find an explanation for behavior and instead simply deconstruct evidence. In a personal communication I explained that while most addiction researchers understand that addiction, like most other mental health disorders is composed of a continuum of control ranging from absolute control over behavior to no control whatsoever (with most people fitting somewhere in the middle and few if any at the extreme ends), categorization is a necessary evil of clinical treatment. The same is true for every quantitative measure from height (Dwarfism is sometimes defined as adults who are shorter than 4’10”) to weight (BMI greater than 30 kg/m²). I think it’s equally as tough to argue that someone with a BMI of 29.5 is distinctly different from an individual with a BMI of 30 as it is to argue that there is no utility in the classification. Well, the same applies for drug addiction, although some people categorically object to classification and believe it has no utility or justification.

Now for the evidence – “Choice” and “control” are not the same as “will”

Some people quit, even without help – Christopher and a number of the people he cites in support (Peele, Alexander), suggest that because some people do stop using that it can’t be said that there is a problem with any individuals’ capacity to stop. The problem with that argument is that it supposes that everyone is the same, a fact that is simply false. As an example I would like to suggest that we compare cognitive control with physical control and use Huntington’s Disease (HD or Huntington’s Chorea) as an example.

HD patients suffer mental dementia but the physical symptoms of the disease, an inability to control their physical movement resulting in flailing limbs often referred to as the Huntington Dance, are almost always the first noticeable symptoms. Nevertheless, HD sufferers experience a number of debilitating symptoms that originate in brain dysfunction (specifically destruction of striatum neurons, the substantia nigra, and hippocampus) and that alter their ability (capacity) to control their movements and affect their memory and executive function leading to problems in planning and higher order thought processes. So, while it is true that most people can control their arm movements, here is an example of individuals who progressively become worse and worse at doing so due to a neurophramacological disorder. There is currently no cure for HD but some medications that help treat it no doubt restore some of the capacity of these patients to control their movements. If a cure is found it would be difficult to say, as Christopher suggests of addiction, that the cure does not affect the capacity of HD patients to control what they once could not. I chose HD for its physiological set of symptoms but a similar example could easily be constructed for schizophrenia and a number of other mental health disorders (including ADHD and drug addiction). Importantly, cognitive control is a function of brain activity, activity that can become compromised as the set of experiment I will discuss next show.

An experiment conducted at UCLA (1) has shown that cocaine administrations reduced animals’ ability to change their behavior when environmental conditions called for it. Even more meaningful was the finding that once animals are exposed to daily doses of drugs, the way their learning systems function is altered even when the drugs themselves are no longer on board and even when the learning has nothing to do with drugs per se.

In the experiment, conducted by Dr. David Jentsch and colleagues, monkeys were given either a single dose (less than the equivalent of a tenth of a gram for a 150lb human) or repeated doses (1/8 to 1/4 of a gram equivalent once daily for 14 days) of cocaine. The task involved learning an initial association between the location of food in one of three boxes and then learning that the location of the food has changed. We call this task reversal learning since animals have to unlearn an established relationship to learn a new one.

Obviously, the animals want the food, and so the appropriate response once the location is changed is to stop picking the old location and move on to the new one that now holds the coveted food. This sort of thing happens all the time in life and indeed, during addiction it seems that people have trouble adjusting their behavior when taking drugs is no longer rewarding and is, in fact, even troublesome (as in leading to jail, family breakups, etc.).

In the experiment, animals exposed to cocaine had trouble (when compared to control animals that got an injection of saline water) learning to reverse their selection when tested 20 minutes after getting the drug, which is not surprising but still an example of how drug administration can causally affect an individual’s ability to make appropriate choices. As pointed above, the most interesting finding had to do with the animals that got a dose of cocaine every day for 14 days. Even after a full week of being off the drug, these animals showed an interesting effect that persisted for a month – while their ability to learn that initial food-box association, they had significant trouble changing their selection once the conditions changed. Remember, this effect was present with no cocaine in their system and with learning conditions that had nothing whatsoever to do with cocaine.

If that’s not direct evidence that having drugs in your system can alter the way your brain makes choices, I don’t know what is.

Another study conducted by Calu and colleagues with rats found similar (or even more pronounced) reversal learning problems after training the animals to take cocaine for themselves, clarifying that it is the taking of cocaine and not the method that causes the impairments.

Another entire set of studies has shown that stimuli (also known as cues or triggers) that have become associated with drugs can bring back long-forgotten drug-seeking behavior once they are reintroduced. This was shown in that Calu paper I mentioned above and in so many other articles that it would be wasteful to go through all the evidence here. Importantly, this evidence shows that drug associated cues direct behavior towards drug seeking in a way that biases behavior regardless of any underlying will. My own research has shown that animals who respond greatly to drugs (nicotine in our case) likely learn to integrate more of these triggers than animals who show a reduced response, indicating once again that these animals bias  their behavioral selection towards drug-seeking more than usual. While we have more studies to conduct, we believe that genetic differences relevant to dopamine and possibly other neurotransmitters important for learning (like Glutamate) are responsible for this effect.

While we can’t do these kinds of experiments with people (research approval committee’s just won’t let you give drugs to people who haven’t used them before), there is quite a bit of evidence showing an association between trouble in reversal learning and chronic drug use in humans (see citation 3 for example) as well as research showing very different brain activity among addicted individuals to drug-associated versus non-drug cues (like seeing a crack pipe versus a building). All this evidence suggests that drug users are different in the way they learn generally, and more specifically about drugs, than individuals not addicted to drugs. When it comes to genetics, we know quite a bit about the  association between substance abuse and specific genes, especially when it comes to dopamine function. As expected, genetic variation in dopamine receptor subtypes important in learning about rewards (D4 and D2) has been revealed to exist between addicts and non addicts. Without getting into the techniques and analysis methods involved in these genetic studies, their sheer number and the relationship between substance abuse and other impulse disorders points to a direct relationship between drug use disorders (and possibly other addictive disorders) and a reduced capacity to exert behavioral control. Less capacity for control is what researchers have found sets addict apart from non-addicts.

Summary, conclusions, and final thoughts

The toyota Prius is slow but efficientIn closing, there are undoubtedly imperfections about the ways we diagnose addiction (drug addiction and others). It would probably be nice if we could figure out a way to incorporate what we know about the continuous nature of the disorder with the need for clinical delineation of who requires addiction treatment and who doesn’t. Addiction researchers are far from the only ones who wonder about this question though (the same issues are relevant for schizophrenia, depression, and nearly every mental health disorder) and I am certain that better and better solutions will emerge.

However, the discussion of stigma in this context needs to allow us to discuss the reality of addiction without having to resort to blaming and counter-blaming. If I describe the Toyota Prius as being slow but incredibly efficient I am no more stigmatizing than if I describe a Ferrari as being incredibly fact but wasteful in terms of fuel. The same applies, or should apply, to health and mental health diagnoses – Just because an individual is less able to exert cognitive control over impulses should not by definition call into question their standing as a human being. We are complex machines and by improving our understanding of the nuts and bolts that make us function we can only, in my opinion, improve our ability to make the best use of our capabilities while understanding our relative strengths and weaknesses. Any other way of looking at it seems to me to be either wishful (I can do anything if I want it badly enough) or defeatist (I will never be anything because I’m not good at X) and neither seem like good options to me.

Citations:

1) Jentsch, Olausson, De La Garza, and Tylor (2002): Impairments of Reversal Learning and Response Perseveration after Repeated, Intermittent Cocaine Administrations to Monkeys. Neuropsychopharmacology, Volume 26, Issue 2, Pages 183-190

2) Calu et al (2007) Withdrawal from cocaine self-administration produces long-lasting deficits in orbitofrontal-dependent reversal learning in rats. Learning & Memory, 14, 325-328.

3) Some evidence in humans from Trevor Robbins’ group: Reversal deficits in current chronic cocaine users.

Don’t walk this road alone – Tips for those still struggling

Trying to quit an addiction can be challenging for many reasons. One of the biggest problems, especially at first, is the faulty learning that has taken place while using (or engaging in addictive behavior). For this reason, finding a long term residential addiction treatment option is ideal for people with severe and long addiction problems. And yet, for many, this solution is simply impractical.

If you can’t remove yourself from your everyday life for long enough to change your now addictive patterns, make sure to enlist the help of others around you.

Be honest with people who are close to you and are not using (at least not abusively) and ask them if they’d be willing to act as de-facto chaperons (or sober buddies). I’ve talked about it on here before, but if you’re anything like me, your addiction permeates your life. Make sure that you have planned activities that fill up your free time with those who are willing to help you. Read my treatment-related posts for specific ideas on things to fill up your time with (exercise, reading, gardening, etc.).

While you may have forgotten what going to the movies when not stoned feels like, trust me, it all comes back in time. Just make sure you have someone there to help you along the way in the beginning…

Like so much else, the biggest first step is asking for that help. Once that’s done, so much of the rest gets easier!

Addicts’ brains depressed but normal users… normal.

A paper that’s about to be published in the journal Science has found at least part of the difference between the brains of addicted individuals and those that use recreationally.

The question as to why only some people get addicted to drugs has been a difficult one to answer. Still, there’s no doubt that only a relatively small fraction of those exposed to drugs develop the compulsive, often destructive pattern of use we associate with addiction. The pattern holds in animal research too – even though all the animals in an experiment get the same amount of drugs, delivered in the same way, only some of them develop addictive drug taking. It seems there’s something different about addicts’ brains, but what is it?

What’s different about addicts’ brains?

We’ve found quite a few things that differentiate addicts’ brains from those of normal research participants. These include lower density of a certain type of dopamine receptor (D2), reduced activity in specific brain parts like the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) that are important in decision making and behavioral control. Still, if we start with what is supposed to be a pretty similar group of rats and give them all the same drug, for the same time, in the same amounts, why do only some get addicted?

This recent study found that a specific neuronal process called LTD (Long Term Depression), that is important in learning (or what we call plasticity) is suppressed in addicted animals for far longer than in animals that end up not not displaying addictive behavior. Even though all animals displayed this sort of deficiency in LTD right after learning to take drugs, only the addicted animals showed it when tested two months later.

Since the difference was seen in an area of addicts’ brains called the Nucleus Accumbens, a very important area for learning about rewards, it seems likely that it plays an important role in addicts’ inability to change their behavior after they’ve started using drugs. Past research has already identified this as a problem with something we call “reversal learning” but it seems we may have just found at least part of the mechanism.

Now we have to figure out why some animals show this sort of pattern and others don’t. Genetic variability seems like a good place to start here.

Citation:

F. Kasanetz, V. Deroche-Gamonet, N. Berson, E. Balado, M. Lafourcade, O. Manzoni, P. V. Piazza, Transition to addiction is associated with a persistent impairment in synaptic plasticity. Science 328, 1709–1712 (2010).

Tips for consistent boundaries and better addiction outcomes

People close to addicts (mothers, wives, brothers, and such) often find themselves struggling when trying to decide how to treat the substance abuser. They feel betrayed when the addictive behavior is displayed, but are lost when it comes to what they can do. For example, a mother with an alcoholic husband may feel that it’s unfair to withhold a father’s love from her child, even if he did get drunk when he promised he would not. She doesn’t want to punish her boy for his father’s behavior.

Consistent boundaries are important for the substance abuser

When teaching people how to behave, one of the worse things to do is to provide inconsistent feedback. It’s true for babies, hell, it’s true for dogs, and it’s certainly true for addicts. The basic principles of learning research tell us that rewarding good behavior while not rewarding (or even punishing) bad behavior is the best method to affect change. Being inconsistent will make the substance abuser more likely to repeat their offensive behavior than rewarding them for it all the time! It’s called a random reinforcement schedule and is the best method to teach a simple behavior and the hardest one to unlearn. Even mice in an experiment are more likely to repeat an action if they know that they’ll get rewarded for it once in a while and can’t predict when that reward will come. Consistent boundaries let people know what to expect in return for their actions.

Tips for better addiction outcomes

So before you go any further, decide on what behaviors you want to reinforce and make them clear – Not going to happy hour with coworkers, not hanging out with that friend who always ends up mysteriously getting some coke, or any other such behavior that seems to keep creeping up in your particular situation. Then make sure that you have a little list of “rewards” – they can be as simple as quality time with the kid, a nice dinner, or spending money for your kid. By having the list ahead of time, it’ll be easier to stay consistent, knowing what to withhold and what to use as rewards (depending on the behavior).

Addicts should never be rewarded with things they want after failing to deliver on their promises of staying clean. No matter the manipulation, the rules must stand. I’m not necessarily a big supporter of punishment, since it can often put additional stress on a relationship, but rewarding bad behavior should not be an option. This way, the hope is that the substance abuser will change their behavior even if their own willingness to change isn’t quite there, out of their need for the rewards that are being withheld. Slowly, they should begin producing more of the desired sort of behaviors.

This isn’t exactly like tough love (which normally includes punishment), but it’s not far from it either. Obviously, this falls under the category of “easier said than done.” Still, as difficult as it may be, as in raising a child, changing the behavior of a substance abuser requires consistency and perseverance. If a good dose of basic training can help, I say why not give it a try, even if it feels a little bit like training your favorite pet.

Good luck!

Montana Meth

A very powerful ad campaign from Montana about the dangers of meth use (thanks to Mike at addictiontomorrow for exposing me to it). Like most advertising, and indeed most media presentations of drug users, the content is a little too stylized, but the point is pretty clear.

I would like to point out that while there isn’t necessarily any research that shows that a single use of meth can lead to addiction, we do know that even using meth for a short while can have serious long term effects on the way the brain functions. This is especially true when talking about some basic learning mechanisms in the brain that affect our ability to change our behavior (look for a post on this shortly)