New Research Shows a Key Link
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “about half of people who experience a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives and vice versa.” The relationship may seem obvious to the casual observer. After all, someone who is depressed would seem more likely to pick up a habit that makes them happy, despite the negative consequences. Furthermore, mentally ill people are often medicated already, which could make the potential occasions for addiction to develop more frequent. Despite these potential factors, medical science has not yet established a clear causal chain to explain the high comorbidity rates between mental illness and addiction.
But a new study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine has discovered a common neural pathway involved in both disorders. According to Medical News Today, when examining the effect of addiction on the brain, “researchers…identified an increased strength of signals sent between the hippocampus and the nucleus accumbens—two brain regions that form part of the reward system—as a sign of addiction.” In the same pathway of the brain, depressed people have a much weaker than usual signal. In short, this means that addicted people experience a much stronger than usual psychological reward system when undergoing a particular activity, while depressed people have a much weaker than usual reward system.
Addiction and Depression – A More Hopeful Future?
This may seem like a tenuous discovery, given that these conditions affect this region of the brain in completely opposite ways. But think of it like this: if you discovered that the same dysfunctional unit that was making your house too cold during the winter also made it too hot during the summer, then you would have enough information to fix the problem. You could just call the HVAC technician to investigate, rather than having your attic re-insulated.
Now that researchers have established which region of the brain dysfunctions to cause these conditions, future research could reverse-engineer solutions to one condition to help the other. If one medication is used to stimulate the activity in the neural pathway in the depressed person, perhaps a similar medication can be developed to deaden the same activity in an addicted person.
In other words, future research of this issue can now focus on the heat pump of the brain, rather than wondering if new insulation is really what’s needed. Given that the brain could potentially hold as much data as dozens of Google’s servers, that is a really useful and time-saving discovery.