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Brain scans help predict drug relapse, Stanford researchers find

Kelly MacNiven, Brian Knutson and colleagues identified a way to predict drug relapse using brain scans. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Jan 11 2019

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Faculty, Students

In a small trial, brain scans revealed who was most at risk of relapsing after being treated for addiction to stimulants like amphetamines or cocaine. The finding could identify people who need help staying drug-free.

By Nathan Collins

Predicting who will remain drug-free and who will relapse following treatment for drug addiction has been impossible – so far. Now, Stanford psychologists think they’ve found a possible clue. For stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines, at least, activity in the brain’s reward-processing circuits could be the key.

The study, published Dec. 28 in JAMA Network Open, found that brain scan data could correctly predict who would and would not relapse about three-quarters of the time, a significant improvement over past efforts. The project was part of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute’s NeuroChoice Initiative, which seeks to understand the causes of and treatments for addiction.

Kelly MacNiven, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author on the new paper, stressed that the results are preliminary – she and her colleagues only looked at 36 people, who were all veterans and mostly men. But if the results hold up in other groups, it could help doctors figure out who is likely to relapse and might need more help.

“Even if this doesn’t lead to treatments, we think it could be useful just as a way of determining who’s at most risk,” said Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the paper’s senior author.