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04-04 Breaking up with habits is hard to do

Posted in Recovery

Breaking up with habits is hard to do

For years, mothers have tried to stop children from sucking their thumbs or biting their nails. New research from Duke University suggests these and other habits run deeper than compulsive behavior. In order to be rid of a habit, a person may have to short-circuit his or her brain just a smidge.

Sugar addiction in lab mice

Duke researchers got some mice hooked on sugar by training them to push a lever to dispense the sweet stuff. No surprise the rodents kept pressing the lever, even when they were cut off. What does surprise researchers are changes to the basal ganglia in the mice that are more addicted than their fellow test subjects.

The basal ganglia carry “go” and “stop” messages to the brain. These impulses affect motor actions and behaviors, including addiction. Researchers found that the go and stop messages are more active in addicted mice. They expected the go messages to be firing, but corresponding heightened activity in the stop messages was a surprise. Of more significance: the Duke researchers discovered in mice with the sugar habit, the go neural pathway (how messages traverse the ganglia) activated before the stop pathway; in nonaddicted mice, the opposite is true.

These neural changes are so pronounced researchers can tell if a mouse is addicted simply by examining a piece of its brain.

What this means for humans

Researchers tried flipping the experiment on its head. They rewarded mice only if they stopped pressing the lever. What they found is the mice with the weaker go cells are more successful at stopping the behavior. The researchers admit it’s a quantum leap from mice to humans, namely because the basal ganglia are so interwoven in brain functions.

Senior study researcher Nicole Calakos notes that other research is exploring the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to treat drug addiction. TMS uses magnetic impulses to stimulate the brain. Says Calakos, “TMS is an inroad to access these circuits in more severe cases.” TMS targets the cortex, the main input source for the basal ganglia. Researchers hope that between TMS and further studies involving the go and stop neural pathways, they may be able to isolate areas of the brain that trigger compulsive behavior.

Sovereign Health Group’s adolescent program treats young people with mental disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse problems and co-occurring issues. We stay on the forefront of cognitive and clinical science to provide the most effective treatment possible. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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