The Role of Digital Brain Health in Supporting Addiction Treatment and Recovery

Human AddictionThe brain is both at the epicentre of addiction as well as the core of any effective treatment and recovery.

In fact, the neural processes that underpin substance abuse are the very ones that need to be targeted in treatment to support ongoing behaviour change that is the hallmark of any successful recovery.

Established research over decades has shown that the effect on the brain of illicit drugs is largely the result of key processes in the brain being high jacked by impulsivity circuits and overstimulated by reward neurochemicals.

The first hijack is the imitation of the brain’s natural neurotransmitters by the drug itself. Drugs such as marijuana and heroin mimic the brain’s own neurotransmitters activating neurons, but in a different way, resulting in what could be described as abnormal transmissions affecting core functions of perception, emotions, arousal and judgment.

Or alternatively, drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine overstimulate the brain’s reward system causing surges in Dopamine that leave the brain simply ‘awash’ and disrupting the fundamental communication processes.

It is the massive release of dopamine that results in the euphoric effect of substance abuse that the addict seeks to replicate again and again.

Sustained drug abuse and the repeated effects of abnormal neural activity, results in significant negative impacts on the brain’s natural processes, especially that of reward.

Reward is central to the thought processes that keep us safe and enable us to repeat actions that aid our survival by associating those activities with pleasure or ‘reward’.

Drug use thwarts that natural process by disassociating the external outcome from the experience of reward or pleasure, substituting a chemically induced reward for the former behaviourally acquired reward state. The brain’s learning and implicit cost to benefit ratio bias now swings to something which is damaging and potentially threatening to survival, but which is perceived as safe and soothing.

It is that long-term impact which results in changes to the brain’s key cognitive processes and loss of control over impulse, that poses one of the most significant challenges on the road to recovery.

Fundamentally, addiction changes the way a person thinks and the aim of recovery is to change that altered way of thinking so that a person can make better, drug free choices, in the future.

A central tenant of successful addiction treatment is behaviour change achieved through cognitive behaviour therapy; changing the way a person thinks to help restore them to more natural brain-behavior interactions and better, healthier self regulated choices.

And while cognitive behaviour therapy is remarkably successful, it is of its own nature, a time consuming process.

Most often conducted in one on one sessions, the resource implications can be high as the number of patients who can be treated at any one time is limited.

That’s where the provision of brain health tools on a digital platform can prove to be a valuable addition to traditional cognitive behaviour treatment of addiction but on a much larger scale.

Yet to be published data from a program of digital brain health tools used in a leading addiction treatment service, shows high levels of participation not only in online cognitive assessments but also brain training games that build self competency skills.

Further, the program delivered promising outcomes across core cognitive capacities with 10 to 20 percent improvements recorded after brain training in Emotion, Self-Regulation, Thinking and Feeling.

Equally impressive was the reach of the digital brain training platform with 200 plus patients utilizing the various games on more than 50,000 separate occasions.

The ability of digital brain health platforms to not just enhance existing addiction treatment programs but also to extend the reach of traditional behaviour modification therapies is opening a new and optimistic chapter on the problem of substance abuse and addiction.

Gregory A. Bayer, Ph.D., CEO of Brain Resource, Inc., a developer of innovative cognitive assessments and exercises to improve brain health, is widely recognized in the behavioral health industry for his leadership in developing responsive and efficient systems of care for those suffering with mental health concerns. As an industry veteran, Dr. Bayer is an advocate for personalized consumer wellness and treatment options for brain health and is a frequent author and speaker on a variety of employee benefit and behavioral health related topics.   

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