New research by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions has identified a key mechanism in how exercise can help impact the brain in ways that may support treatment—and even prevention strategies—for addiction.
Scientists in Britain previously found that just five minutes of brisk walking can alleviate withdrawal symptoms caused from giving up smoking. They believe that exercise stimulates how much dopamine (a mood enhancing hormone) is produced which reduces the desire for nicotine.
The Neurobiology of Addiction and Exercise
We know that exercise itself can be addictive and that other substances and behaviors that are addictive have increased dopamine release in brain targeted regions as a common property. Aside from being the ultimate motivator, having a constant supply of dopamine in your system has a few other fringe benefits such as improving memory, counteracting depression, resisting impulsive behavior, losing weight and even helping avoid Parkinson’s Disease.
Also known as ‘cardio,’ aerobic exercise is brisk exercise that increases heart rate, breathing and circulation of oxygen through the blood, and is associated with decreasing many negative health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. It also is linked to numerous mental health benefits, such as reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
Panayotis (Peter) Thanos, PhD, RIA senior research scientist and senior author of the study, says:
Several studies have shown that, in addition to these benefits, aerobic exercise has been effective in preventing the start, increase and relapse of substance use in a number of categories, including alcohol, nicotine, stimulants and opioids. Our work seeks to help identify the underlying neurobiological mechanisms driving these changes.
The Dopamine Effect
Using animal models, Thanos and his team of researchers found that daily aerobic exercise altered the mesolimbic dopamine pathway in the brain. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter associated with substance use disorders, playing an important role in reward, motivation and learning.
You can’t take dopamine since it’s something your brain produces for itself. But what you can do is increase dopamine in your system to help you stay focused, productive and motivated. Thanos adds:
Current work is looking at whether exercise can normalize dopamine signaling that has been changed by chronic drug use, as this may provide key support of how exercise could serve as a treatment strategy for substance abuse. Further studies that focus on people with substance use disorders should help researchers develop new methods to integrate exercise into treatment regimens that may help prevent relapses.