Study connects cocaine to judgement errors
“The 50 substance abusers had a much more difficult time predicting loss than the healthy participants.”
Making the choice
The researchers mainly compared a person’s ability to foresee a loss and their behavior surrounding it with the risk of the loss actually happening. This comparison is known as Reward Prediction Error. This type of measurement can also indicate whether a person has learned from past behavior, or if he or she will choose to ignore past consequences and take the same actions. In the instance of cocaine users, the researchers found that they may act ignorantly, but the behavior may not be deliberate. Past research has proved that whether people can anticipate if they may benefit or suffer from something has to do with the levels of dopamine in the brain, a chemical that is associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. When a person gains or loses something, those levels of dopamine rise and fall, respectively. The National Institute on Drug Abuse noted that there is one part of the brain that is strongly stimulated by cocaine. This portion is known as the ventral tegmental area. Nerves in this area reach to another part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward-seeking behavior. When a person is rewarded for something, dopamine in this part of the brain is increased, causing greater neural activity. Normally, the dopamine moves through the brain and is removed. However, cocaine causes the dopamine to linger and build, causing a greater sense of euphoria, which makes the drug incredibly addictive. The researchers from Mount Sinai used 75 participants in their study. Fifty of the people were cocaine users, and the other 25 were not. The study authors recorded the brain activity of these people using an electroencephalography, which is a brain scan that can detect any electrical activity that goes on within the brain. When the brain attempts to process a thought, neurons fire in the brain, and they create electrical activity. While participants played a gambling game, the researchers measured the activity in their brains. The game went through a series of trials and asked people to anticipate whether they would win or lose money on each.
The wrong prediction
The researchers found that the cocaine users performed significantly worse than the participants who did not abuse drugs. The 50 substance abusers had a much more difficult time predicting loss than the healthy participants. The results suggest that people who abuse cocaine may be more likely to have difficulty foreseeing these losses and possible consequences for their actions compared to people who do not abuse drugs. Cocaine users may also have difficulty noting the differences between expected and unexpected outcomes regarding loss. Being able to detect the differences is crucial to a person’s learning and decision making abilities. So, if a person who is abusing cocaine cannot detect these two differences, he or she may make the same mistakes again or not be remorseful, much less cognizant of, the consequences. The study authors also asked the participants about their drug use. They found that half of the cocaine users had not used the substance in the preceding 72 hours and half had. Those who admitted to using the drug in the past 72 hours had higher electrical activity when they guessed correctly about a loss, which was similar to participants who did not use any drugs. Users who had actually stopped using cocaine for the past 72 hours did not experience the same effect. This is the first time that a study has looked at users’ expected gains and losses in context to drug addiction. They noted that because the results suggested that drug users may have issues foreseeing losses, it may help future researchers detect who is vulnerable to relapsing or developing an addiction.
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