Scott Moeller, a psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan who worked with researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, found that drug-related choice in cocaine addiction extends to abstract, non-pharmacological stimuli.
Previously, scientists have had to administer cocaine, or pharmacologically similar drugs, to test its effects on brain and behavioral functions, Moeller said.
In two experiments, the cocaine-addicted individuals chose the cocaine-related images more than the healthy controls, who showed aversion to the images.
The finding could help clinicians monitor behavior such as following the effectiveness of treatment in addicted individuals who are currently abstaining from drugs.
In addition, the cocaine-addicted individuals with the greater preference for cocaine-related images over pleasant ones had used cocaine more frequently in the previous month, suggesting this could serve as objective measures of the severity of drug use.
"Tasks like the ones developed here could be used clinically to predict the effectiveness and outcomes of drug-addiction treatment, including abstinence or relapse," Rita Goldstein, director of the Brookhaven Lab Neuropsychoimaging group, said in a statement.
The study was presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington.