William is one of the addicts who participated in Dr. Childress's study. While examining William's brain, she flashed cocaine cues—images of people he had used the drug with or things that reminded him of cocaine—onto a screen for just 33 milliseconds at a time. Most people wouldn't even be able to recognize what they were seeing, but William's brain was well aware.
"For someone with a history of cocaine, there's an intense arousal that sets up in milliseconds," Dr. Childress says. "These cues say, 'This is more important than your children, than your spouse, than your job…pursue this.' From the brain's perspective, this is the important thing."
Photos of William's brain show that there was a surge of chemicals released when he saw the powerful cues, which Dr. Childress calls the "go state." For the first time in human history, researchers can now see what's happening inside the brain, identify the targets and see what they need to address.
"We're really excited that we can both calm down the go state, but also bolster the brakes," she says. "One of the things that we've been able to see is that people with addictions—their brakes aren't so good. So [there are] two ways that you can help the car—one is to take your foot off the accelerator. Another way is to put on the brakes."
Dr. Childress's goal is to treat addiction with medications that curb the craving. "Instead of it being so compelling and something that would cause you to go away from your family and your children, with medication, you can get a brain now that's sort of back down to, 'This is not so exciting. I can take this or leave this,'" she says.