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Does methamphetamine abuse actually change the way the brain is "wired" -- that is, which regions do what? One of our studies looks at this question using an exciting technology that's fairly new to drug research: fMRI, or "functional magnetic resonance imaging."
Functional MRI is similar to the MRI used to look at anatomy, like when you hurt your knee and the doctor is trying to figure out which tissues are damaged.
However, instead of providing a x-ray like picture of all your tissues, what the fMRI scanner does is measure blood flow -- here, in different parts of the brain.
Participants lie down on a platform and slide into the tube-shaped magnet. The researcher gives them a mental task or question to answer. Extra blood flows to the areas of the brain that are used during the task, and that's recorded by the fMRI machine.
Later on, the scientist combines images from many research subjects to see which areas, on average, are being used most during a particular task.
What do we see when we compare the brain use by methamphetamine addicts with "normal" non-addicts? So far, we are finding that brain use does change. When thinking about certain kinds of problems, recovering methamphetamine addicts don't "light up" in the part of the brain where "normal" people see activation.
In the MARC, Dr. William Hoffman will be following groups of recovering addicts and non-addicts for six months, recording their brain activity by fMRI while they do a task that measures how impulsive they are.
Based on earlier work, we expect to see that methamphetamine users' brains will work significantly different at the first testing. As time goes by, however, will brains of the former methamphetamine users start to act more like brains of people who have never used the drug? We'll find out.
Although we know that long-term methamphetamine use affects people's behaviors, we still don't know what's changing inside the brain that causes those behavioral patterns. Dr. Hoffman's project will help us locate the brain regions that are most affected by methamphetamine use.
Once we know more about which areas are affected, we can look at the chemical processes going on there and, eventually, target medications to address the damage done by the drug.
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