Cocaine Addicts Have High Sensitivity to Drug Cues in Images

Cocaine Addicts Have High Sensitivity to Drug Cues in Images

Researchers and addiction specialists know that any given person’s chances of using drugs or alcohol can rise substantially in the presence of conscious or unconscious substance-related cues that come from within the mind or from the surrounding environment. Much of the scientific work done to explore these cues has focused on the influence of verbal or spoken memories. In a study published in March 2014 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from Rutgers University explored the impact of visual memories on the chances that young adults addicted to cocaine will seek out and consume either cocaine or another substance of abuse.

Drug Cues

Substance cues or drug cues form when any given individual consumes drugs or alcohol, especially when that consumption takes place in a certain location or social context. Some of these cues stem from factors outside of the individual and involve such things as the friends or acquaintances typically present when substance use occurs or the sights and smells of the substance-using environment. Other cues stem from internal sensations, such as feelings of pleasure or perceptible changes in heart or lung function. Still other cues may stem from the thoughts that substance users have while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In many cases, a drug or alcohol user may be consciously aware of at least some of the cues that develop around substance intake; however, even the most self-aware user is also affected by unconscious cues that operate on various levels. The triggering of a conscious or unconscious cue (or set of cues) can substantially increase a person’s urge to use drugs or alcohol.

Cocaine Use

Cocaine is one of several well-known stimulant drugs or medications capable of producing euphoria in the brain’s pleasure-processing centers. Some cocaine users are so impacted by this euphoric state that they start taking the drug over and over again in order to re-experience its effects. This recurring exposure to cocaine can ultimately lead to lasting changes in the chemical balance responsible for triggering pleasurable feelings; these changes mark the beginning of physical cocaine dependence. In turn, physically dependent cocaine users commonly undergo a series of physical, mental and behavioral changes that characterize the arrival of outright cocaine addiction. Significant numbers of cocaine abusers and cocaine addicts also consume at least one other substance of abuse; addiction specialists, public health officials and researchers refer to this overlapping or simultaneous use of multiple substances as polydrug use or polysubstance use.

Impact of Visual Cues

In the study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, the Rutgers University researchers used controlled testing to gauge the impact of visually generated substance-using cues on the behavior of young adult cocaine addicts involved in polydrug intake. They undertook this line of inquiry because most of the past research efforts in this area have focused on verbal drug and alcohol cues. All told, 35 young adults took part in the current study. Fourteen of these individuals were polydrug-using cocaine addicts enrolled in inpatient treatment for their condition; the remaining 21 study participants had little or no prior involvement in cocaine use or any other form of drug use. The members of both groups repeatedly viewed a series of images designed to function as cues for drug use, as well as a series of images not linked to drug use in any noticeable way.

The researchers found that both the group affected by cocaine addiction and the group with little exposure to drug use demonstrated an ability to consciously remember the images designed to function as drug cues, as well as an increased susceptibility to unconscious associations related to those images. However, the group affected by cocaine addiction demonstrated a significantly higher level of sensitivity to these conscious and unconscious reactions than their non-drug-using counterparts.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study note that both the cocaine-addicted participants and non-drug-using participants were more likely to consciously remember the images not related to drug intake. This fact was particularly evident in the individuals with little or no history of drug exposure. Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that unconscious visual cues may play an important role in driving the urges that cause people affected by cocaine addiction to seek out cocaine or other drugs and participate in drug use. They also believe that future research may lead to the discovery of new ways to exploit this finding during treatment interventions for cocaine users.

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