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Drug Addicts And Their Non-addicted Siblings Share Features In The Brain

03.02.2012 08:49 EST
Drug addicts and their non-addicted siblings share certain features in the brain, suggesting a susceptibility to addiction is inherited but is also a flaw that can be overcome, scientists said on Thursday.
Researchers who scanned thebrains of 50 pairs of brothersand sisters of whom one was a cocaine addict found that both siblings had brain abnormalities that make it more difficult for them to exercise self-control.
The findings increase understanding of why some people with a family history ofdrug abuse have a higher risk of addiction than others and could point to new treatments to help vulnerable people learn how take control before addictions set in. "If wecould get a handle on what makes unaffected relatives ofaddicts so resilient we might be able to prevent a lot of addiction from taking hold," said Paul Keedwell a consultant psychiatrist at Britain's Cardiff University, who was not involved in the research but was encouragedby its findings.
Good data on addiction is hardto gather since many drug abusers and alcoholics exist on the margins of society, butthe World Health Organizationestimates that at least 15.3 million people worldwide have drug use disorders. It says atleast 148 countries report problems with injected drug use.
A study in the Lancet medical journal in January said that as many as 200 million people use illicit drugs worldwide each year, with use highest inwealthy countries.
Unhealthy addictions can also range from narcotics and prescription medicines to legalsubstances like cigarettes and alcohol and lifestyle factors such as over-eating or gambling.
Scientists have noticed brain differences in drug addicts before, but as yet they were not sure whether those differences came before the drug use, or were as a resultof it.
Karen Ersche of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at Britain's Cambridge Universityled a team of researchers who got around this problem by studying pairs of biologicalsiblings one addicted and one with no history of chronic drug or alcohol abuse and comparing both siblings' brains to those of other healthy people.
Their results, published in thejournal Science, showed that both addict and non-addict siblings shared the same abnormality in the parts of thebrain linked to controlling behavior regions known as the fronto-striatal systems.
"It has long been known that not everyone who takes drugs becomes addicted, and that people at risk of drug dependence typically have deficits in self-control," said Ersche. "Our findings now shed light on why the risk of becoming addicted to drugs is increased in people with a family history: Parts of their brains underlying self-controlabilities work less efficiently.
Ersche said the next step would be to explore how the siblings who don't take drugs manage to overcome their brain abnormality, so scientists can better understand what protects them from drug abuse. This may provide vital clues for developing more effective therapies against addiction.
Asked to comment on the study, Derek Hill, a professor of Medical Imaging Science at University College London, said it was a "clearly designed" piece of research which showed that this sort ofbrain scanning might be used to find so-called biomarkers to help develop new treatments for other self-control-related conditions such as over-eating.
"Unfortunately, it takes yearsto develop an imaging method like this to the level of maturity needed to help develop new treatments, so practical benefits are some way in the future," he said.

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