Computer Imaging Gives New Look at Addiction

Photo by John McCabe Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the newly formed West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, speaks about the science of the brain and addiction during Monday’s Academic Media Day at WVU.

MORGANTOWN — Doctors may soon have a new set of tools that can identify and modify parts of the brain stimulated by substance abuse, experts said.

Dr. Ali Rezai, the new director of West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, outlined the latest advances in fighting neurological diseases — including chemical addiction — during WVU’s third-annual Academic Media Day held this week at the Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown.

Using magnetic resonance imaging and other computer-enhanced imaging tools, doctors now can see activity in specific parts of the brain caused by substance cravings.

“There’s been tremendous advances in brain imaging and how we can visualize brain disorders,” Rezai said. “We’re able to understand the science of addiction even better than before.”

In his presentation, Rezai outlined how computer-generated imaging allows doctors to map out brain wave activity generated by specific diseases, including impulsive behavior tied to chemical addiction.

Rezai said major advances in brain scanning have led to new treatments for brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, and psychological afflictions including depression and severe anxiety.

“The point is that we can now quantify many elements of human behavior and go beyond it,” Rezai said. “The brain is connected to every one of your body organs. So while you have butterflies in your stomach when you’re anxious, your brain signals down to your guts, your immune system, your hormonal system.

“We’re looking at many areas — addiction, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other conditions — that can be better diagnosed and treated,” Rezai said. “It’s going to change the way we look at physiological addictions.”

Rezai presented MRI-generated slides showing neurological activity — and inactivity — in specific parts of the brain of a substance addict.

“This shows the area of the reward center of the brain that’s very active in alcoholics or drug addicts, while (the) area of the brain that controls this behavior is less active and, as a result, leads to addictive behavior,” Rezai said.

WVU Medicine plans to expand addiction treatment next year to include magnetic stimulation and implants used to calm the parts of patients’ brains where increased activity produces cravings. Medical lab tests will be conducted in Ohio and West Virginia, Rezai said.

The institute is also conducting “bioelectrical medicine” that uses a tiny pellet implanted in the body to break an opioid addict’s craving at its root. By delivering medicine slowly, the pellet over time modulates brain patterns connected with the substance craving.

The institute is also using ultrasound waves on the brain. Rezai demonstrated how the procedure was used to treat a patient with Parkinson’s disease, and helped reduce his body tremor symptoms over time.


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