Target for Addictions Identified Deep in the Brain

“Man becomes cigarette smoker. Man suffers from stroke. Man completely loses urge to smoke.”

This sums up the neon lights that have been blinking nonstop in the media around the scientific paper, “Damage to the Insula Disrupts Addiction to Cigarette Smoking” that was published in the January 26, 2007 issue of Science magazine (pages 531-534). The magazine also ran a commentary, “Brain Damage Sheds Light on Urge to Smoke” on the paper.

The key? A brain region called the insular cortext, or insula, deep within the cerebral cortex. This region has been implicated in other addictions, including cocaine addiction. Signals that trigger this region has been linked to the stimulation of addictive desires. This means insula is a potential therapeutic target – in other words – drugs or treatments that affect insula’s ability to stimulate addictive desires become a therapy for addiction.

In fact, Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse wants to try transcranial magnetic stimulation (pulses of magnetic energy) on the insula and see what happens to addictive behaviors. This would further substantiate whether the insula is indeed our own “center for addiction”.

What this means is that this “target” for addiction is still a potential target, but there is more hype than scientific evidence at this point. As with most scientific “breakthroughs” that get painted out of proportion by the media to create a sensation, we must wait and see.

My friend (“the future Dr.”) Yvonne Kao has written about the fervor this news has created in her neurobio class.

1 thought on “Target for Addictions Identified Deep in the Brain

  1. Yvonne

    Heh, I don’t know about “fervor.” I don’t think grad students at 9am about to fish around for brain bits in buckets of formaldehyde are capable of fervor.

    The insula is a really interesting little region that’s been implicated in a wide variety of things, including gustatory/olfactory stuff, visceral associations, affect/motivation, and spatial learning. It’ll be fun to see how this all shakes out.

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