Brain Chemistry Finding Could Stop PTSD from Triggering Opioid Addiction

People who suffer from PTSD are between two and four times more likely to suffer drug use disorders than those without PTSD. But new evidence suggests that the brain receptors that play a role in PTSD are the same brain receptors that enhance the rewarding effects of morphine and other opioids. Researchers hope this new finding could lead to new treatments that help people successfully overcome both disorders.

The Neurobiological Link Between PTSD and Addiction

opioid addiction

Considering the prevalence of opioid addiction among those who suffer from PTSD, Western University researchers set out to find an underlying brain connection that might explain why these two disorders are closely linked. The results from this study have been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Scientists focused on dopamine receptors in the brain known as D1 and D4 — both of which are involved in the recall of traumatic memories and addiction. Using test rats, the researchers learned that stimulating D4 receptors can turn non-traumatic memories into traumatic memories — a mechanism that motivated the rats to seek morphine for its rewarding effects. The researchers also learned that blocking the D1 receptor can block the recall of traumatic memories, and reduce the rewarding effects of morphine.

According to lead study author Steven Laviolette, PhD, people who recall traumatic memories are at higher risk for addiction due to the way their brain receptors make them more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs. But drugs and treatments that block the recall of traumatic memories could help lower the addiction risk among those who suffer from PTSD.

PTSD and Addiction: A Dual Diagnosis

People who suffer from both addiction and a mental health disorder like PTSD are known to have co-occurring disorders, or a dual diagnosis. Many of the brain chemicals affected by mental health disorders are the same brain chemicals that play a role in addiction, which is why the two conditions are closely linked. Evidence suggests that people with mental health disorders are more than twice as likely to suffer from addiction, and vice versa. But those who struggle with PTSD are at between two and four times the risk.

Common symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, depression, and severe anxiety, among many more. Those who aren’t being treated for PTSD and who are unable to cope with PTSD symptoms frequently use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. For instance, they may abuse alcohol or sedatives in an effort to escape insomnia and nightmares, or they may use opioids like heroin and morphine to achieve feelings of relaxation along with mental and physical pain relief.

Using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for PTSD may result in temporary relief from symptoms. But unfortunately, habitual drug use can worsen PTSD in the long run and lead to physical dependence and addiction — especially where opioids are concerned. Opioids are highly addictive and can be extremely dangerous when misused or used illicitly. In the U.S., an estimated 115 people die every day from an opioid overdose — many of whom had struggled with opioid addiction.

Getting Help for Dual Diagnosis

A dual diagnosis can be safely and effectively treated using drug or alcohol detox, along with therapy for addiction and mental health disorders. These treatments target the root cause of both disorders so you can experience a full recovery and benefit from overall improved mental and physical health.

Detox helps you overcome drug and alcohol dependence, while therapy helps you deal with and overcome traumatic memories so they no longer interfere with your ability to enjoy and navigate everyday life. Therapy also teaches you how to overcome negative thoughts and behaviors that may holding you back from achieving sobriety and experiencing a full recovery.

Ready to begin your recovery journey? Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to learn about available treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.

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