Environment may raise drug-relapse risk

Huma Munir

People remember certain odors and sights from settings where they do drugs, including alcohol, and will remember the experience if they come into contact with similar settings, according to a new study by the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at UT.

For example, if a person is consuming alcohol in a room that smells like oranges, the smell becomes a reminder of their experience, said associate pharmacy professor Christine Duvauchelle, a member of the center. She said the smell will trigger cravings and lead to addiction over time as the person repeatedly comes in contact with it.

“The environment that the alcohol drinking occurs in gets associated with the drinking itself,” Duvauchelle said.

The study breaks ground in showing that such reminders can enhance addictions and cravings. When a person comes into contact with cues that remind them of their drug experience, their addiction may worsen, said Brian Bernier, a neuroscience graduate student who worked on the study as part of his dissertation.

Addiction is a form of learning because the parts of the brain that are involved in teaching about things that are considered rewarding, such as food, do the same for drugs, and that reward response causes addiction, Bernier said.
Bernier conducted the experiment on mice by giving them alcohol repeatedly over a week and then studying the changes in neurons in certain parts of the brain that trigger addiction.

He said the exposure to drugs makes it easier for our brains to build associations in the future. Neurons — brain cells that transmit information to different parts of the body — cause cravings when the brain experiences those associations.

It is a widely accepted notion in the neuroscience community that alcohol consumption can enhance a person’s ability to build associations at a subconscious level, said associate neurobiology professor Hitoshi Morikawa, a member of the center.

Looking forward, the study may help create anti-addiction drugs that weaken the associations in the brain and help cure addictions, Morikawa said.
“We are currently testing certain drugs on animal models of drug addiction with this idea in mind,” he said.