Let's Talk About Craving

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  • Brain imaging research is revealing that the signals, or cues, that may spark an addicted person's desire to take drugs can be incredibly subtle or quick. Expanded knowledge about craving helps scientists develop new medical treatments for addiction.

Cravings - powerful desires - are part of the human condition. Our brains are "hard-wired" to appreciate and to pursue natural rewards such as food and sex because of their critical survival value.

Drugs used by addicted people activate the same circuits that motivate food and sexual behavior. Signals, called cues, can be sights, sounds, smell or thoughts. Cues activate the brain's powerful "go!" circuit creating cravings. The cravings for alcohol and other drugs can be even stronger than those for food or sex.

Managing the cravings associated with food, sex and drugs is the responsibility of the brain's inhibitory "stop!" circuitry. Research suggests that some people have better "stop!" systems or better "brakes," than others. Individuals with weaker "brakes," may have much greater difficulty managing cravings, putting them at increased risk for addiction, and/or for relapse. Exposure to some drugs may actually weaken the brain's braking system.

Cravings may have their beginnings outside conscious awareness. Recent brain imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the brain "go!" circuit even though the person is not conscious of the cues.

In addition to cue-induced craving, desire can also be fueled by:

  • a small sample of the drug/food/rewarding activity (the "salty peanut" effect: "just a little" often leads to much more!)
  • the wish to avoid negative effects (such as drug withdrawal, or negative moods, etc.). Many people with addictions have a co-occurring mood disorder (anxiety or depression). These moods can themselves become triggers for food or drug craving, increasing the risk of relapse.

Hope Through Research

You can get help with managing craving, and there is much ongoing research aimed at the development of more effective anti-craving interventions (for food, drugs, sex, gambling, etc.).

Both anti-craving medications and anti-craving behavioral strategies may be helpful to inhibit or "stop!" drug craving. Many of these medications have been well-studied; others are in the early stages of testing. New anti-craving interventions may be available in a location close to you. Research treatments are usually available at no cost (as they are supported by research grants), and they may offer a new treatment option that is not yet available in the community.

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When you have an episode of craving: