Studies Examine the Science of Recovery

Recovery is a funny thing in that an individual who has dealt with an addiction to drugs or alcohol can face a lifetime struggle to stay away from these substances. For many, recovery is a stage they remain in for the rest of their lives.

The environment in which an individual exists in can make a difference on their recovery. In fact, according to recent research conducted by Michael A. Nader, Ph.D., professor of physiology/pharmacology and of radiology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, the environment for the recovery addict becomes a major factor that influences the success of the recovery.

In his research, Nader noted that the use of animals in the process has identified important implications for physicians and other practitioners working with human addicts. His study of animals produced evidence that environmental enrichment can protect the individual from the likelihood that they will abuse cocaine.

"There have been many studies that show that stress – the other end of that continuum – can increase the likelihood that an individual will abuse drugs,” said Nader in a presentation. “We’ve gone to the other side of that and shown that enrichment can actually protect the individual from drug abuse."

The physiological approach of Nader’s research focused on the chemistry of dopamine, the major neurotransmitter in the brain. The level of dopamine in the brain is increased by cocaine, identified as the cause of the intense, although fleeting euphoria experienced by cocaine users. Therefore, it was important to examine the impact drugs have on dopamine (D2) "receptors."

In studying the impact in dominant monkeys, Nader determined that once they start abusing cocaine, D2 receptors decrease over time. Once cocaine is removed from their use habits, D2 receptors increase again with six to nine months’ abstinence. Given the opportunity to use cocaine again, however, Nader hypothesizes they will be less likely to relapse when compared with subordinate monkeys.

"You have to remove them from the environment that they’re in where the drugs are being taken, because the environment has huge effects on the dopamine system and on the likelihood that they’ll take drugs," Nader said. "Some people have a view that once you’re addicted, you’re always addicted, and I think part of that is because of the environment.”

The same can be said about the habits of the individual, especially in the case of alcoholism. Another study found that those who smoke after they sober up face a more difficult time recovering from alcoholism than those who do not smoke. This research suggests that smoking may interfere with the brain’s ability to recover from the effects of chronic alcohol abuse.

In a news release, researcher Dieter Meyerhoff, professor of radiology at the University of California, San Francisco noted, "This study suggests that for better brain recovery, it may be beneficial for alcoholics in early abstinence to stop smoking as well.”