Latest developments in causes and treatments



A Pathway Out of Addiction?

Let’s look first at a fairly recent publication titled “How Science Has Revolutionized the Understanding of Drug Addiction,” and then at a very recent (this week) piece on some up-to-the-minute brain science.

The first article, by Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, begins by establishing that “addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behavior.” The author goes on to explain that various drugs act in different ways to interfere with the ability of neurotransmitters to send, receive, and process signals.

Marijuana, for instance, can activate neurons. Amphetamines and cocaine are able to stimulate neurons “to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters” and can disrupt the status quo in other ways. Opioids act on other areas, like the brain stem, and may seriously or fatally affect functions like heart rate and respiration.

Dr. Volkow writes:

These areas form a key node of what is sometimes called the brain’s “reward circuit.” Drugs over-activate this circuit, producing the euphoria of the drug high.

Then there is the extended amygdala, which…

[…] plays a role in stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease, which characterize withdrawal after the drug high fades and thus motivates the person to seek the drug again… Over time, a person with substance use disorder uses drugs to get temporary relief from this discomfort rather than to get high.

Also impacted is the prefrontal cortex, which holds the ability to “think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and exert self-control over impulses.” Dr. Volkow writes,

Shifting balance between this circuit and the circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala make a person with a substance use disorder seek the drug compulsively with reduced impulse control.

As we have seen, compulsion has been called one of the “three Cs of addiction” (along with control and continuation). Furthermore, drugs can get at the basal ganglia, messing up “positive forms of motivation, including the pleasurable effects of healthy activities,” which include socializing, sex, and eating. Now it becomes clear where we’re going with this, as eating addiction is the primary interest of Dr. Robert Pretlow, host of AddictionNews.

It all begins to come together to pose an intriguing query: Could a wearable ultrasound device be a pathway out of addiction, or even a way to prevent it? Now here is the brand-new advance that makes it feasible to even ask such a seemingly crazy question.

The story originates with associate professor of biomedical engineering Hong Chen and the rest of the Washington University team who hope to “integrate ultrasound with genetics to precisely modify neurons in the brain.” The noninvasive technology is described as merging “a holographic acoustic device with genetic engineering.” It can accurately target specific neurons inside the brain, and “holds promise for the precise modulation of targeted cell types across various diseased brain regions.”

Here is the pitch:

By enabling precise and flexible cell-type-specific neuromodulation without invasive procedures, AhSonogenetics provides a powerful tool for investigating intact neural circuits and offers promising interventions for neurological disorders. [It is] a method utilizing focused ultrasound to deliver a viral construct containing ultrasound-sensitive ion channels to genetically selected neurons in the brain.

[The team] designed and 3D-printed a flexible and versatile device called an Airy beam-enabled binary acoustic metasurface… Sonogenetics provides researchers with a precise method to control brain activity, while airy-beam technology enables the bending or steering of sound waves to create arbitrary beam patterns within the brain with high spatial resolution.

Team members “individually designed each Airy-beam metasurface to serve as the basis for wearable ultrasound devices tailored for various applications and precise brain locations.” Presently, mice are the only experimental participants, so it will be quite some time before the full potential of this technique is explored — including the possibility of it doing some good in the addiction field. Meanwhile, the hints and the clues are so tantalizing.

Written by Pat Hartman. First published June 21, 2024.


“How Science Has Revolutionized the Understanding of Drug Addiction,”, July 2020.
“Wearable ultrasound? New tech targets trouble spots in the brain,”, June 17, 2024.

Image Copyright: NIH Image Gallery, used under Public Domain.


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