Exercise and Relapse

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Both current and recovered drug addicts are less likely to relapse compared to their counterparts who live sedentary lifestyles

By: Caine Meyers

The allure of drugs can be hard to resist when battling addiction, and further perpetuated when users revisit environments related to previous drug use. Fortunately, new research in mice suggests that individuals experiencing drug addiction who exercise regularly appear to be less vulnerable to environmental cues related to previous drug use. It appears that exercise alters the production of certain peptides within the brain that may strengthen users’ determination.

As previously mentioned, exposure to drug-related cues (e.g., environments in which drugs were previously administered) can induce relapse, even in individuals who have recovered from addiction. This is especially true for people with a former addiction to heroin. Previous studies indicate that exercise can reduce both craving and relapse in addicts, albeit the exact mechanisms were not well-understood. Researchers believed that exercise manipulated users’ learned associations between drug-related context/cues and the reward received from taking the drug (e.g., dopamine bursts) through changing peptide levels in the brain. Jonathan Sweedler and his colleague Justin Rhodes of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sought out to explore this hypothesis through quantitative research.

In their study, Sweedler and colleagues administered cocaine to mice over the course of four days. The mice were in distinctive chambers with unique textures in order to create a learned association between the environment and consumption of the drug. Afterwards, the mice dwelled in separate cages for a month. Some cages included a running wheel. Indeed, the mice who were housed in cages with running wheels had lower levels of peptide related to myelin. This is especially intriguing because myelin is believed among experts to help codify or fix memories in the brain. When the mice were re-introduced to the distinctive chambers, a striking difference occurred between the sedentary and active mice. As hypothesized, the active mice exhibited less preference for environments associated with previous cocaine use and conversely, sedentary mice favoured these environments.

These findings have significant implications for both addicts and recovered users. In accordance with this research, residents at Sobriety Home may incorporate a physically-active routine to compliment other methods of treatment. Indeed, this will help with the process of recovery and provide recovered addicts tools that they can take with them outside of the facility in order to maintain a drug-free life.

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Exercise and Relapse