Thursday, January 16, 2014

What is This Thing Called Neuroplasticity?

And how does it impact addiction and recovery?

Bielefeld, Germany—
The first in an irregular series of posts about a recent conference, Neuroplasticity in Substance Addiction and Recovery: From Genes to Culture and Back Again. The conference, held at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at Bielefeld University, drew neuroscientists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, and even a freelance science journalist or two, coming in from Germany, the U.S., The Netherlands, the UK, Finland, France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere. The organizing idea was to focus on how changes in the brain impact addiction and recovery, and what that says about the interaction of genes and culture. The conference co-organizers were Jason Clark and Saskia Nagel of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück, Germany.

One of the stated missions of the conference at Bielefeld’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research was to confront the leaky battleship called the disease model of addiction. Is it the name that needs changing, or the entire concept? Is addiction “hardwired,” or do things like learning and memory and choice and environmental circumstance play commanding roles that have been lost in the excitement over the latest fMRI scan?

What exactly is this neuroplasticity the conference was investigating? From a technical point of view, it refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections in response to illness, injury, or new environmental situations, just to name three. Nerve cells engage in a bit of conjuring known as “axonal sprouting,” which can include rerouting new connections around damaged axons. Alternatively, connections are pruned or reduced. Neuroplasticity is not an unmitigated blessing. Consider intrusive tinnitus, a loud and continuous ringing or hissing in the ears, which is thought to be the result of the rewiring of brain cells involved in the processing of sound, rather than the sole result of injury to cochlear hair cells.

The fact that the brain is malleable is not a new idea, to be sure. Psychologist Vaughn Bell, writing at Mind Hacks, has listed a number of scientific papers, from as early as 1896, which discuss the possibility of neural regeneration. But there is a problem with neuroplasticity, writes Bell, and it is that “there is no accepted scientific definition for the term, and, in its broad sense, it means nothing more than ‘something in the brain has changed.’” Bell quotes the introduction to the science text, Toward a Theory of Neuroplasticity: “While many scientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term, it means different things to different researchers in different subfields… In brief, a mutually agreed upon framework does not appear to exist.”

So the conference was dealing with two very slippery semantic concepts when it linked neuroplasticity and addiction. There were discussions of the epistemology of addiction, and at least one reference to Foucault, and plenty of arguments about dopamine, to keep things properly interdisciplinary. “Talking about ‘neuroscience,’” said Robert Malenka of Stanford University’s Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences, “is like talking about ‘art.’”

What do we really know about synaptic restructuring, or “brains in the wild,” as anthropologist Daniel Lende of the University of South Florida characterized it during his presentation? Lende, who called for using both neurobiology and ethnography in investigative research, said that more empirical work was needed if we are to better understand addiction “outside of clinical and laboratory settings.” Indeed, the prevailing conference notion was to open this discussion outwards, to include plasticity in all its ramifications—neural, medical psychological, sociological, and legal—including, as well, the ethical issues surrounding addiction.

Among the addiction treatment modalities discussed in conference presentations were optogenetics, deep brain stimulation, psychedelic drugs, moderation, and cognitive therapies modeled after systems used to treat various obsessive-compulsive disorders. Some treatment approaches, such as optogenetics and deep brain stimulation, “have the potential to challenge previous notions of permanence and changeability, with enormous implications for legal strategies, treatment, stigmatization, and addicts’ conceptions of themselves,” in the words of Clark and Nagel.

Interestingly, there was little discussion of anti-craving medications, like naltrexone for alcohol and methadone for heroin. Nor was the standard “Minnesota Model” of 12 Step treatment much in evidence during the presentations oriented toward treatment. The emphasis was on future treatments, which was understandable, given that almost no one is satisfied with treatment as it is now generally offered. (There was also a running discussion of the extent to which America’s botched health care system and associated insurance companies have screwed up the addiction treatment landscape for everybody.)

It sometimes seems as if the more we study addiction, the farther it slips from our grasp, receding as we advance. Certainly health workers of every stripe, in every field from cancer to infectious diseases to mental health disorders, have despaired about their understanding of the terrain of the disorder they were studying. But even the term addiction is now officially under fire. The DSM5 has banished the word from its pages, for starters.

Developmental psychologist Reinout Wiers of the University of Amsterdam used a common metaphor, the rider on an unruly horse, to stand in for the bewildering clash of top-down and bottom-up neural processes that underlie addictive behaviors. The impulsive horse and the reflective rider must come to terms, without entering into a mutually destructive spiral of negative behavior patterns. Not an easy task.

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