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Cognitive Neurobiology

In partnership with the VA and Dr. Gregory DiGirolamo, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the College of the Holy Cross, we have begun exciting work in the underlying neurobiological and cognitive changes that underlie addictions. Voluntary and automatic responses to drug cues play a pivotal role in both the acquisition of an addiction as well as in relapse. Using a high-speed eye-tracker, we can monitor the ability of patients to control their own behavior (their eye movements) toward smoking, alcohol or neutral cues. In addition, we can determine their physiological response towards these cues by measuring pupil diameter. We are measuring these parameters in patients who smoke and who are also addicted to alcohol, and comparing those who have abstained from drinking for two to three weeks versus those who smoke and have abstained from drinking for six to eight months. We expect that individuals with longer abstinence will exhibit better control over their eye movements and thus control of their reactivity to substance use cues. This important work can lead to insights into whether co-occurring substance addictions should be treated independently or simultaneously.

Additional work investigating young substance users and their control of their behavior toward smoking, alcohol, opiate, and cocaine cues is also underway. This work extends from using measures of control to predict relapse (patients with opiate addiction) to the influence of varenicline on the ability of patients with nicotine addiction to control their automatic and voluntary responses toward nicotine cues; it also incorporates study of the underlying changes in the neural circuitry of patients with cocaine addiction. Further work investigates the powerful unconscious influence of alcohol cues on the behavior of young adults. In summary, this work investigates the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms that change as an individual goes from use to abuse, and the resistance of these mechanisms during treatment and abstinence.

This work has led to the creation and ongoing expansion of Bedford’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab (directed by Drs. Smelson & DiGirolamo). Largely a product of the close cross-institutional collaborations and expertise in the areas of cue exposure, drug craving evaluation, cognitive control, cognitive neuroscience, and the genetic factors that influence mental illnesses, the Lab is truly an example of the “from bench to bedside” approach of translational mental health research and treatment.

By providing subject matter experts in cue exposure techniques and analysis of the associated electrophysiological changes, UMass contributed to the conduct of a study on whether or not alternative therapy, specifically Qi jong, helps maintain recovery from cocaine addictions. Exposure to drug cues and substance abuse triggers in the laboratory setting laid a solid research foundation for evaluating the impacts of the randomized receipt of either a Qi jong healing session or a sham healing session. The results of repeated cue-exposures, indicating whether or not responsiveness to drug cues also changed, are in ongoing analysis.

Another important element of the Lab is the capacity to support the program’s burgeoning insights into the genetics of functional disability in schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and addictions.