Addiction of various kinds currently affects millions worldwide.
It's a condition that leaves individuals trapped in negative cycles, characterised by cognitive problems, cravings, risky behaviours, and worsening mental health.
But there's a glimmer of hope thanks to modern research on the adult brain’s ability change and grow - a concept known as neuroplasticty.
While science is revealing a number of methods to promote neuroplasticity, a recent review has shown that mindfulness-based interventions can lead to significant changes in brain function, particularly in areas related to reward processing and cognitive control.
The research suggests that mindfulness - which can be described as present moment awareness and non-judgmental attention to one's thoughts, feelings, and sensations - is a very effective tool for treating addiction.
These findings provide a ray of hope, but they also highlight the need for further exploration and understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying these transformative therapies.
The power of mindfulness
Mindfulness-based interventions are therapeutic approaches that seamlessly integrate mindfulness practices into various aspects of treatment.
These interventions aim to cultivate mindfulness skills in individuals and apply them to promote well-being and address a range of psychological and physical health conditions.
Imagine being able to regain control over your mind, reducing cravings, managing stress, and ultimately breaking free from the chains of addiction.
This is the promise that mindfulness holds for individuals grappling with substance use disorders.
Valentina Lorenzetti, an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University and deputy director of the Healthy Brain and Mind Research Centre, and her team embarked on a journey to unveil how mindfulness-based interventions can mitigate brain dysfunction in substance use disorders.
Their research involved a systematic review, combining evidence from multiple studies that investigated the effects of mindfulness-based interventions on brain function in individuals with substance use disorders.
Through their rigorous analysis, they identified the key brain regions that undergo transformation under the influence of mindfulness.
Rewiring the brain with mindfulness
The evidence emerging from this comprehensive review indicates that mindfulness-based interventions can indeed bring about notable changes in the brains of individuals grappling with substance use disorders.
The regions most consistently affected by these interventions include the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the striatum, crucial for reward processing and mindfulness.
Furthermore, the researchers observed changes in other brain regions associated with cognitive processes related to reward disregulation and mindfulness.
These regions include the insula, cerebellum, precuneus, inferior frontal gyrus, and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).
Of particular significance, the insula, a known player in addiction, has been targeted in interventions aimed at reducing cravings.
Lorenzetti says we need to replicate the effects of mindfulness-based interventions in larger and more diverse study populations to provide greater clarity on who benefits most from these interventions.
Harnessing the potential of neuroplasticity
Mindfulness isn’t the only way to harness neuroplasticity to improve mental health. Along with mindful practices like meditation, these things have also been shown to enhance the brain’s adaptability:
Psychedelics, such as psilocybin (found in certain mushrooms) and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, derived from the ergot fungus), have gained attention for their potential to induce rapid and profound changes in brain function and connectivity.
Clinical trials have shown promising results, with some individuals experiencing significant improvements in symptoms after a single dose.
Lion's mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a natural supplement that has gained attention for its cognitive and neuroprotective effects.
There is growing evidence to suggest lion’s mane supports brain health and potentially enhances cognitive function over time by stimulating the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which enhances neural plasticity and the formation of new neural connections.
One recent study discovered that one compound in particular, called hericene A, promotes nerve cell growth, increases the production of brain-boosting molecules called neurotrophins, and improves memory performance in mice.
Exercise is one of the most well established ways to promote neuroplasticity and improve mental health. If the effects of exercise could be sold in a pill, it would make billions.
However, if you were to focus on one type of exercise for the best bang for your buck, then training your legs to get stronger would be it.
This knowledge comes from a study in which mice’s hind legs were restricted in movement for 28 days, reduced the growth of new brain cells by 70%.
Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in fatty fish and certain supplements, have been associated with brain health and cognitive function.
As a crucial component of the brain's cell membranes, particularly in neurons, omega 3s make up a significant portion of the brain's grey matter, where most of the processing occurs.
Learning a new language or instrument challenges cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and problem-solving. As you memorise vocabulary and notes, construct sentences and melodies, and switch between languages, your brain becomes more adept at multitasking and managing cognitive demands.
Understanding the neural mechanisms behind the transformative effects of mindfulness-based interventions on substance use disorders paves the way for developing more effective interventions that target the problematic use of substances.
Mindfulness-based interventions may not be a panacea for everyone, but they offer a valuable tool for retraining brain dysfunction, reducing cravings, managing dosage, and alleviating stress.
Lorenzetti believes that integrating these interventions with professional support can be a game-changer for those seeking to break free from the clutches of addiction.
In conclusion, the path to improving mental health lies in nourishing the brain's ability to adapt. And, as this review confirms, mindfulness-based interventions are powerful tools in the treatment of substance use disorders.
While more research is needed to solidify these findings, the promise of rewiring the addicted brain is being better understood each day.
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