Dr Karen Ersche at the University of Cambridge has found that people with cocaine addiction are not more likely to alter their behaviour if they know the consequences of their actions. She explains why her findings could be important for how we treat cocaine addiction.
Cocaine addiction can be devastating for individuals and those around them and it is a habit that can be incredibly difficult to break. I wanted to understand why individuals continue taking cocaine even when they understand the negative consequences. Currently there are no medically proven treatments for cocaine addiction and our research has shown us that people addicted to cocaine form habits – including those unrelated to drugs – differently from people who aren’t. Understanding this could help us be more effective in how we treat those with addiction.
We all have our own daily routines and habits that we quickly slip into. They can be good or bad – we might find ourselves taking a drink of water without thinking or biting our fingernails whilst watching the telly. We typically develop them as a result of repetition, and learn to execute them automatically, leaving our brain-power free to concentrate on other things. However, when the situation demands it and our habits are harmful or don’t make sense anymore, we can break them. It requires some effort, but we can do it.
The results from our study suggest that, for people addicted to cocaine, it may not be so easy. Cocaine-addicted people seem to be more prone to developing habits for actions that are rewarded. More importantly, they appear to be more likely to get stuck in these behaviours, even if they know that what they are doing no longer makes sense or even is harmful.
In the first task participants learned by trial and error which animal pictures gained them points. The points were later taken away for some of the animal pictures but the people with cocaine addiction tended to continue to answer in the same way. Image source: Science