New Pleasure Circuit Identified In Brain, Could Change Addiction Treatments

By Mo Mozuch on July 30, 2012 6:27 PM EDT

photo:reuters
photo:reuters

An article in the August edition of Scientific American by psychologists Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge  details their discovery of a new pleasure circuit in the brain.  The circuit is actually a series of hotspots in the brain that enhance sensations of pleasure beyond mere enjoyment. The research uncovered that the existing pleasure centers of the brain, which have been established science for decades, actually create desires, not pleasures. Researchers are looking into how the stimulation of the newly discovered hotspots of pleasure can be used to treat mental illness and addiction.

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"Higher brain regions receive information from these pleasure and reward circuits to consciously represent the warm glow we associate with joy," the article states.

The research is also revealing how the brain processes wanting something, and alternately, how it processes liking something. This can potentially lead to more effective treatments for people suffering from various addictions. Kringlebach and Berridge have been studying pleasure centers and their affect on addicts for years. They described the role the liking/wanting region of the brain plays in drug addiction for in an article for the academic journal "Social Research" two years ago.

"At extreme, the addict may come to 'want' what is neither 'liked' nor expected to be liked, a dissociation possible because 'wanting' mechanisms are largely subcortical and separable from ...  conscious planning," they wrote. "This is a reason why addicts may compulsively 'want' to take drugs even if, at a more cognitive and conscious level, they do not want to do so. That is surely a recipe for great unhappiness."

The research also identified a region of the brain in the orbitofrontal cortex that contributes to the brain's response when people start to feel sick of something. In the study, the area showed high activity when a subject ate something tasty, like a brownie. As they continued to eat, however, the activity diminished until the experience of eating brownies stopped being pleasurable. 

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