Intellectual pursuits may curb addictions

Mice that received cognitive training chose not to accept cocaine.

By Stephen Feller

BERKELEY, Calif., July 14 (UPI) -- Spending time doing intellectually stimulating activities may help ease or prevent addiction, based on a study with mice.

Previous studies have shown that poverty, trauma, mental illness and other environmental and physiological stressors can make people more susceptible to drug abuse. Researchers sought to test whether these environmental influences could be counteracted with some type of intervention.


"We have compelling behavioral evidence that self-directed exploration and learning altered their reward systems so that when cocaine was experienced it made less of an impact on their brain," said Linda Wilbrecht, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California Berkeley, in a press release.

Researchers worked with three groups of mice: Some who were put through nine days of cognitive training based on exploration, incentives and rewards; some mice were given rewards without having to conquer a challenge; and a third group of mice stayed in their home cages with restricted diets and activities.

The two groups of mice that received rewards were set loose in chambers for a few hours a day, free to do what they wanted. The group receiving cognitive training was put through various enrichment activities and received Honey Nut Cheerios as a reward. The other group was simply given the Cheerios.


A few weeks after the training had been completed, the researchers put each group of mice in adjoining chambers with the option to go into either of them. Researchers observed which chamber each mouse preferred, and then changed its preference by giving it cocaine in the room it did not prefer.

Weeks later, when the mice were put in the adjacent chambers, they all returned at first to the chamber with the cocaine. Over time, however, the mice that had been put through the cognitive tests showed less preference for the chamber where they'd been given the drug.

"Our data are exciting because they suggest that positive learning experiences, through education or play in a structured environment, could sculpt and develop brain circuits to build resilience in at-risk individuals," Wilbrecht said, "and that even brief cognitive interventions may be somewhat protective and last a relatively long time."

The study is published in Neuropharmacology.

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