Addictions, Bad Habits Can 'Highjack' Brain

The parital agonist is one molecule that blocks most receptors while still providing just a little bit of an "oomph" to calm cravings. That's how varenicline (Chantix) helps smokers quit, and how buprenorphine gets junkies off heroin or other opioids.

Therapy Key to Overcoming Addictions, Compulsive Behavior

But what about inhibitory control? Susman believes he was given the active drug -- Locaserin, which is designed to dial down the "high" he receives from food -- during his 12 months in the study. But, it should be understood that there are no medications that are capable of ramping up will power.

"It's an area of active research," Levounis says. "There are some medications proposed, but nothing to write home about."

He said treatment is typically two-fold. For addicts, psychiatrists will cool down the reward pathways, often with medication. Then, they target the diminished frontal lobes.

"We try to beef up the frontal lobes as much as we can, and we do that with psychotherapy," Levounis said.

Researchers agree that psychotherapy is key to regaining self-control, and it's the predominant treatment used in patients with addictive behaviors.

Mark Smaller, a psychoanalyst in private practice in Chicago, said psychotherapy often reveals an underlying cause for an addiction or compulsive behavior. Usually, it's anxiety or depression.

Acknowledging those problems may help change behaviors. Once they're realized, a patient can start working against them, with the help of the brain's own neuroplasticity. Essentially, neurons can disconnect and re-connect, or loosen their connections and tighten them, which often manifests in noticeable change.

"[Psychological] insights can actually begin to change brain chemistry and diffuse compulsions," he said. "If you address those issues, you can have a positive impact on your life that can change the chemistry of your brain."

Smaller said it "creates a new psychological -- if not neurological -- structure that can help regulate behavior."

Though research on neuroplasticity is relatively young, the idea of "rewiring" the brain is not new. Too often, it's been an excuse for indulging, an explanation for a New Year's resolution deferred: "I can't stop eating chocolate, I'm just not wired that way."

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