June 19, 2014
According to findings from recent study, playing those memory games can improve decision-making in recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, which may result in an increase in substance abuse treatment efficacy.
The discovery involves an underlying relationship between memory and delay discounting. Psychologists use the term “delay discounting” to refer to one’s inability to resist the temptation of a smaller immediate reward in lieu of receiving a larger reward at a later date. Discounting future rewards too much is a form of impulsivity, and an important way in which we can neglect to exert self-control. Delay discounting has been linked to substance abuse treatment outcomes, with higher rates of impulsivity associated with a greater risk for relapse after drug rehab. This predictive ability is true regardless of one’s drug of choice, be it heroin or nicotine—the longer you can wait for any type of reward, the longer you are likely to go without using.
Meet Your Brain’s Impulse Control Center
The ability to delay gratification is linked to activation in a specific part of the brain—the dorsal (top) lateral (outside) prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning and decision-making. Typically, more activation in this area means better self-control. However, the prefrontal cortex is known to be abnormal in substance abusers, and numerous studies have shown that addicts have less brain volume in this region than non-drug users. The decrease in size seems to be directly related to drug use itself, with severity and length of use linked to a greater decrease in volume and activity.
Researchers’ Aha Moment
A recent study alludes when you improve working memory you enhance your willpower. Initially this realization was surprising to researchers—since discounting and working memory are separate cognitive processes. However, the two functions overlap in the brain, and both are linked to activation in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. As a result, it appears that improving working memory can strengthen activation in this area, which can subsequently enhance other behaviors that tap into it—like self-control.
“Remembering an event in the past and thinking about the future are really tied processes. And working memory, being able to hold ideas and concepts or facts in our heads for a certain period of time, may be necessary for us to think about and value things that occur in the future,” explains Dr. Warren Bickel, who has been researching drug addiction for the last 20 years.
Losing brain cells is never a good idea, but in the prefrontal cortex it can be especially detrimental, impacting the ability for self-control and making someone even more impulsive than they already were. But all is not lost.
The good news: Studies have shown that our brains can bounce back once off drugs because the cells have the ability to regenerate—similar to leaves sprouting from tree branches after a long, cold winter. If someone you care about needs help getting life back on track, Gateway Treatment Centers can help. Call today to learn about a free, confidential consultation at (877) 505-HOPE (4673).