Some of history’s most influential discoveries started out as accidents: trivial, mundane actions leading to other trivial, mundane actions, occurring and reoccurring every hour of every day until a slight variation in time’s chain of events creates a significantly different result than the norm. For example, when scientists and doctoral students at Philips Research North America and the Department of Public Health Services at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry conducted studies involving stroke patients who also happened to be smokers, it was uncovered that there seemed to be a direct correlation between patients who suffered strokes in a specific part of the brain and nicotine abstinence. The researchers are confident that the evidence points to possible treatment of addiction in individuals.
According to the National Stroke Association, a stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off. Brain cells are deprived of oxygen and begin to die, which, during a stroke, can result in a loss of control over abilities such as memory and muscle depending on which part of the brain is affected. When a stroke occurs in the insular cortex—implicated in the functions of pain perception, speech production, and the processing of social emotions, et al.—as it did in a number of patients involved in the study, individuals were found to suffer far less from withdrawal symptoms than those who suffered a stroke elsewhere in the brain. According to the findings, after a period of three months, 70% of the former were able to quit smoking entirely versus only 30% of the latter.
Today, treatment for nicotine addiction is left to the relatively ineffective prescriptions of bupropion and varenicline, or nicotine replacement therapies like patches, all of which have pretty low success rates for quitting. This study, published in Addiction and Addiction Behaviors, offers the hypothesis that this insular cortex may play a much more important role in what The Fix refers to as the “mental and emotional processes that are part of substance use, including tobacco and drugs.”
According to the study’s lead author, Amir Abdolahi, PhD:
“Much more research is needed for us to more fully understand the underlying mechanism and specific role of the insular cortex… but it is clear that something is going on in this part of the brain that is influencing addiction.”
One of the biggest challenges researchers will undoubtedly face is how to exactly isolate the part of the insular cortex that is affecting the withdrawal center of nicotine addiction without infringing on the mental processes of other abilities, such as the aforementioned speech production. Furthermore, with respect to the patients involved in the study, exactly how affected by their strokes were the 70%? Could their ability to abstain from nicotine have been a by-product of much more serious cognitive issues?
Nevertheless the excitement lies in the fact that with so much focus on addiction treatment among researchers (and now, politicians), many different possibilities for the treatment of addiction are coming to the fore, which means that eventually, inevitably, we will find ourselves living in a world where addiction—to anything, really—will be a thing of the past.
What do you think?