Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy could help people overcome drug addiction. The process would consist of helping the addicted brain learn new behaviors, replacing the ones associated with the need for drug consumption.

The research, published January 2017 in the journal Learning and Memory by the University of Texas at Dallas, found that VNS therapy was successful in reducing drug cravings in rodents.

VNS, A Possible Cure For Drug Addiction

There is a possibility for the treatment to work on people as well, according to Dr. Sven Kroener, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, lead author of the research. The study analyzed extinction learning and the way vagus nerve stimulation can be effective in helping subjects learn new behaviors, in direct opposition to the existing ones, which are replaced.

"When a subject is addicted to a drug, extinction is a method to help them relearn behaviors - so they are able to take different actions," noted Kroener.

Vagus nerve stimulation consists of sending a low electric pulse through the vagus nerve located in the neck. This type of therapy has already gained FDA's approval in certain areas, such as in the case of epilepsy or depression.

This is not the first VNS research carried out at the University of Dallas, as numerous studies on the applicability of this type of therapy have previously been carried out. From analyses on the VNS therapy on paralysis from stroke to PTSD and anxiety, the university is an important facility when it comes to VNS research.

As part of the current study, VNS was applied to a group of rodents in the process of extinction learning to assess whether or not it could help the rats learn distinct behaviors and cause a drop in the drug carvings. Similar to a previous research carried out on anxiety patients, the current one aimed to extinguish memories related to drug cravings.

"Drugs of abuse cause changes in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and associated regions that impair inhibitory control over drug-seeking. Breaking the contingencies between drug-associated cues and the delivery of the reward during extinction learning reduces rates of relapse," noted the research.

The idea of extinguishing current memories is crucial for the process involved in this type of therapy. The researchers noted that, very often, people who suffer from a certain drug addiction would have to learn competing behaviors to overcome addiction. The therapy aims at reinforcing positive behavior, as opposed to the drug-related one, by placing the two types of behaviors in direct contradiction. Applied correctly, this method could also reduce the relapse rates in people who suffer from drug addiction.

The Science Of Addiction

"As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. We have identified many of the biological and environmental factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disease," notes the National Institute of Drug Abuse in a paper called Drug, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.

According to the CDC, the number of deaths associated with opioid drug overdose has quadrupled, and more than 500,000 people died from 2000 to 2015 due to drug overdoses. At the same time, 91 American people die daily because of opioid overdose.

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