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Addicts don't chase the high, they avoid the low

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New research from Rutgers University suggests that addicts aren't necessarily hardwired to recreate the "high" they experience while using their drug of choice.

Instead, the study reveals, they are driven by the need to avoid the "lows" that accompany drug addiction.

The findings, although based on an animal model, suggest that human addiction is rooted more in the desire to numb out painful emotional responses than it is in the actual short-lived euphoria of drug use itself.

The study

Using rats, the research team detected the animals' high-pitched calls (which are associated with positive feelings) and low-pitched calls (which are associated with negative feelings). The rats had the opportunity to self-administer cocaine during a period of six hours.

At the beginning of the experiment, the rats emitted high-pitched calls as they raised their internal drug levels with cocaine. Yet after the six hours, the rats exhibited lower-pitched calls while they were coming down from the high.

"We see all the positive, high-pitched calls in the first 35-40 minutes," said David Barker, doctoral student in the Department of Psychology. "Then if the animals are kept at their desired level you don't observe either positive or negative calls. But as soon as the drug level starts to fall off, they make these negative calls."

Implications

The importance of animals studies like these, the team noted, is that they offer a more honest picture of addiction. Humans, for instance, may be too embarrassed to admit that drug addiction is based in depressive or painful experiences.

"It's not that human studies aren't important, they certainly are," the researchers said. "But with these animal studies it is clear that we should be placing just as much importance on the negative as being a trigger for drug abuse and deal with that as well."

The study is published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Source: Rutgers University