Dr. Anna Rose Childress, a professor who specializes in brain behavior at the Pennsylvania VA Addiction Treatment Research Center, has been using the latest scientific technology to study addicts' brains and determine what happens when a person is struggling with substance abuse.
To see what's going on inside the brain, Dr. Childress takes pictures of an addict's brain reacting to images both related and unrelated to drug use. Then, the researchers compare the way the brain reacts to each cue to determine the areas that are affected.
Since the study began, Dr. Childress has worked with cocaine, marijuana, nicotine and heroin addicts. The substances may vary, but the results do not. Dr. Childress says that in most cases, the brain was "compromised."
"The person [who is addicted] is actually not making choices in the rational way," she says. "This brain is a different brain, and we think the brain may be different when you walk into the world in terms of your ability to manage some of your impulses. But certainly after it's been exposed to drugs, there are important changes."
The brain functions that are affected are the same ones that help us maintain relationships and seek out the things we need to survive, like food and sleep. "That kind of strong, strong desire is a part of this system in the brain that now gets upturned," Dr. Childress says. "It gets inverted. It gets hijacked, essentially. So the drug does have a direct impact on the brain."