A recent study at UC Berkley may have provided some new insight into the complicated world of drug addiction. Using mice, researchers found that intellectual stimulation may have the power to reduce the desire for a drug high.

Psychological addiction is based in the emotional and mental craving for a substance, rather than a physical addiction, which results in physical symptoms should the person try to reduce or halt their intake of the drug. Though it has been recognized that boredom may contribute to an individual’s choice to begin using a drug, this new study suggests that reversing boredom may actually have the ability to reduce vulnerability to drug-seeking behavior.

Using a type of Pavlovian training called conditioned place preference (CPP), scientists tracked the cocaine cravings of over 70 adult mice. The mice were split into groups that had different daily schedules, and it was observed that mice that spent the day exploring, learning, and finding hidden treats were less likely than their enrichment-deprived counterparts to seek out a chamber where they had been given cocaine.

 "We have compelling behavioral evidence that self-directed exploration and learning altered their reward systems, so that when cocaine was experienced it made less of an impact on their brain," said Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper, in a press release.

Mice that lived with restricted quarters and activities, on the other hand, were quite eager to return to the quarters where they had been given cocaine for weeks.

"We know that mice living in deprived conditions show higher levels of drug-seeking behavior than those living in stimulating environments, and we sought to develop a brief intervention that would promote resilience in the deprived animals," said study lead author Josiah Boivin in a statement. Boivin is a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at UC San Francisco who conducted the research at UC Berkeley.

Drug addiction ranks among the most costly, difficult to manage, and destructive of the world’s health problems. Previous studies have found that mental illness, trauma, poverty and other environmental and physical stressors can alter the brain’s reward system and make an individual more susceptible to substance abuse.

Though it was conducted on animals, the new study offers ideas for interventions against drug seeking behavior.

"Our data are exciting because they suggest that positive learning experiences, through education or play in a structured environment, could sculpt and develop brain circuits to build resilience in at-risk individuals, and that even brief cognitive interventions may be somewhat protective and last a relatively long time," Wilbrecht said in the press release.

Source: Boivin J, Wilbrecht L, Piscopo D. Brief cognitive training interventions in youth adulthood promote long-term resilience to drug-seeking behavior. Neuropharmacology. 2015.