Study reveals that the brain’s cannabinoid system protects against addiction during childhood trauma.

A recent study from Linköping University in Sweden found that people who have experienced childhood abuse are more likely to have high levels of the body’s own cannabinoid compounds, which act as a barrier against addiction.

The research was written up in Molecular Psychiatry. Following childhood abuse, the brains of those who had not become addicted appear to process social signals involving emotions more quickly.

The risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction in later life is long thought to be elevated in cases of childhood maltreatment. Even after taking into account confounds from genetics and other familial factors, Linköping University researchers have previously demonstrated that this risk is three times higher if you were exposed to childhood maltreatment than if you weren’t.

“Addiction has received a lot of attention as a disease driven by a desire for pleasure effects and euphoria, but for many, it has more to do with the drugs’ ability to suppress negative feelings, stress sensitivity, anxiety, and low mood.” Based on this, we and other researchers hypothesized that if affected in childhood, the function of the brain’s distress systems is disrupted, which may lead to the risk of addiction in adulthood.”

Markus Heilig, professor and director of the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience,

“Addiction has received a lot of attention as a disease fueled by a desire for pleasurable effects and euphoria, but for many, it has more to do with the drugs’ ability to stifle unpleasant emotions, stress sensitivity, anxiety, and low mood. Based on this, Markus Heilig, professor and director of the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience (CSAN) at Linköping University and consultant at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University Hospital in Linköping, and other researchers have had the theory that, if affected in childhood, the function of the brain’s distress systems is altered, and that this may contribute to the risk of addiction in adulthood.

Endocannabinoids, also known as E. e. In this context, the body’s own cannabis-like substances are an intriguing player. The endocannabinoid system is crucial in controlling how we respond to stress and discomfort. That this endogenous system might serve as a stress buffer has been suggested by recent research.

Participants in the test are asked to identify whether the face in the picture conveys fear or joy. Inconsistent information can occasionally be found in the words in the image. Using an MRI scanner at the Centre for Medical Image Science and Visualization, or CMIV, at Linköping University, the researchers investigate which brain regions are active during this task. Thor Balkhed/Linköping University is to be credited.

The study’s authors sought to learn more about potential mechanisms underlying resilience or susceptibility to adult substance use disorders following exposure to maltreatment as children. People who experience problems later in life have a tendency to exaggerate their negative life experiences when asked about earlier occurrences, which makes research challenging. In order to identify study participants who had exposure that had been objectively and prospectively documented, the researchers searched the psychiatric care registers of children and young people who had received treatment for traumatic childhood experiences.

A total of 100 young adults participated in the study, who were divided into four equal groups: those who had experienced childhood abuse and had become addicted; those who had, but hadn’t; those who had not, but had; and those who had neither experienced abuse nor become addicted. The levels of endocannabinoids in the participants’ blood were measured, and several experiments were run to examine how the body responded to stress. While the participants’ responses to social stimuli were examined, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also used to scan their brains.

It turned out that one group stood out from the other three: those who had experienced abuse as children but had not gone on to become addicted. This group is described as resilient by the researchers. This group displayed altered brain activity and increased endocannabinoid system function in comparison to the other groups. Surprisingly, the control group, which had not experienced childhood abuse or had any addictions, differed the least from the resilient group.

When exposed to emotional social stimuli, the resilient group’s brain activity in three regions was higher. Two of these regions work together to form a brain network that modifies behavior by directing attention and cognitive abilities toward what is urgent at the time. The third region of the brain is located in the frontal lobe and is linked to controlling emotions. The brain’s emotional processing regions and this area communicate with one another frequently. Humans, in contrast to other animals, have a well-developed frontal lobe that controls impulses and emotions, such as by suppressing fear impulses in irrelevant situations.

“A more adaptive way of responding to emotional social information may be associated with increased activity in certain brain regions in the resilient group, which had not developed an addiction despite experiencing maltreatment as children.” Irene Perini, staff scientist at CSAN at Linköping University, says, “We can see that they also show increased communication between the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain in a resting state, which could indicate that this group has better emotional regulation.”

This finding begs the question of whether the resilient group had a high level of endocannabinoid system function from the start or if they were better able to activate the system in response to stress, avoiding the long-term effects of childhood abuse. This is impossible to ascertain from the current study because of its cross-sectional nature.

More information: Resilience to substance use disorder following childhood maltreatment: association with peripheral biomarkers of endocannabinoid function and neural indices of emotion regulation, Molecular Psychiatry (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41380-023-02033-y

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