Sudoku and Crossword Puzzles to Manage Drug Addiction

Art therapy. Psychological counseling. Pharmacological intervention. Scientists have devised many different ways to manage drug addiction in individuals. They now propose a novel way to reduce drug dependence in addicts—by engaging them in intellectual activities.

Scientists believe that just as addictive tendencies are triggered by neuronal abnormalities, they can also be reversed by correcting these anomalies. They believe rewiring the brain will strengthen the neural connections and make them work the way they should. Their tools? Puzzles and games that will boost the brain’s cognitive abilities.

Intellectual abilities and drug addiction

This year, an interesting experiment was carried out on laboratory mice. One group of animals was made to go through a cognitive training program with incentives and rewards that lasted several days; the other group was made to stay in their cages where their activities were restricted and they faced no cognitive challenges.

After a month, all the mice were set loose to roam in two open boxes with different smells, textures, and patterns. The animals displayed distinct and repeated preferences for one box or the other. The scientists then tried to change the preferences of the mice by giving them cocaine in that particular box that they had repeatedly rejected.

The results were striking. Although at first all the mice began to scamper to the box where they received cocaine, after a few weeks, the group of animals that went through the cognitive training program did not prefer the “cocaine box” as much. They stuck to their original preferences and continued to shun the “cocaine box.”

Although the association between cognitive training and decreased drug dependence has been established only in animals until now, scientists have proof that not all human beings who are recreational users of cocaine go on to become addicts. According to their findings, some specific neurological properties that are known to influence cognitive abilities act as restraints in these cases.

Why do some people get addicted while the more intelligent ones resist the same temptations?

Scientists conducted experiments on a group of cocaine addicts and another group of recreational cocaine users who have not got addicted to the drug.

According to the findings of this study, recreational users who have not succumbed to addiction have abnormally large frontal lobes. This region of the brain is associated with executive functions like decision-making and self-regulation. The scientists believe that the over-abundance of gray matter in their frontal lobes helps these people keep their cravings in check.

This hunch is established by the finding that the subjects with cocaine dependence had significantly smaller-sized frontal lobes, which means that their brains have less gray matter than the recreational users. These people were also found to be more impulsive and compulsive than the non-addict group.

White matter integrity too has been implicated in the development of drug addiction in individuals. Cocaine addicts have less white matter integrity in the inferior frontal and anterior cingulate regions of their brains. This impairment is known to adversely affect decision-making abilities, trigger impulsive behavior, and weaken the motivation to alter destructive habits.

The above findings excite scientists striving to find more effective ways to manage addictive behavior in individuals because these indicate that devising ways to increase gray matter volume and optimize white matter integrity can help addicts recover and stay away from drugs.

The saying goes that the more you exercise your muscles, the stronger they become. So, scientists believe that cognitive training can rewire the brains of drug addicts and help them take back their lives.

Lack of self-control: An intellectual impairment that can trigger drug addiction

These above-mentioned findings are backed by other scientists. It was shown that adolescents are more vulnerable to developing drug dependence after being initiated because certain cognitive abilities and the brain’s executive functionalities associated with self-control are not fully developed in them. The paper that reports this finding also goes on to suggest that schools should revise their curricula or impart specific training programs that let teenagers develop the executive capabilities of their brains.

The neurological roots of drug addiction are well-documented. But other studies have established that certain neural abnormalities may cause a loss of cognitive abilities that in turn, can lead to a lack of self-control.

For instance, new research demonstrated that drug addicts exhibit impulsive and compulsive behaviors, and these traits are caused by dysfunctional connections in the striatal-cortical network. This finding is supported by another study on various groups of people who exhibit disorders associated with impulsive and compulsive behaviors. This study concludes that cocaine-seeking behavior is associated with imbalances both within and between the frontal-striatal networks.

The implications of the studies

Scientists know that drug addiction is a disorder of the brain. They also know that some types of cognitive impairments lead to drug dependence. This gives hope that sharpening the cognitive capabilities by making addicts take up intellectual pursuits can help lessen their dependence. These effects of cognitive training have also been found to be long-lasting. So educationists and school and college curriculum designers should consider imparting cognitive training in classes that will help students develop and hone their decision-making abilities and improve self-regulation.

The brains of cocaine users show abnormal enlargement of the basal ganglia, a region that is associated with the reward system. This is not surprising. But the findings of this study imply that it is not enough to make an addict go though a cognitive training program and hope that he abstains from drugs. It is also crucial that his neural reward system is rewired, so he no longer derives satisfaction from getting high on drugs.

So the need of the hour is to come up with stimulating intellectual activities with ample rewards and incentives packed in, which will not only strengthen the brain to resist drugs but also make it perceive drugs as less rewarding and therefore not worth trying.


Boivin, J., Piscopo, D., & Wilbrecht, L. (2015). Brief cognitive training interventions in young adulthood promote long-term resilience to drug-seeking behavior Neuropharmacology, 97, 404-413 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2015.05.036

den Heuvel, O., der Werf, Y., Verhoef, K., de Wit, S., Berendse, H., Wolters, E., Veltman, D., & Groenewegen, H. (2010). Frontal–striatal abnormalities underlying behaviours in the compulsive–impulsive spectrum Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 289 (1-2), 55-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.jns.2009.08.043

Ersche, K., Barnes, A., Jones, P., Morein-Zamir, S., Robbins, T., & Bullmore, E. (2011). Abnormal structure of frontostriatal brain systems is associated with aspects of impulsivity and compulsivity in cocaine dependence Brain, 134 (7), 2013-2024 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr138

Ersche, K., Jones, P., Williams, G., Smith, D., Bullmore, E., & Robbins, T. (2013). Distinctive Personality Traits and Neural Correlates Associated with Stimulant Drug Use Versus Familial Risk of Stimulant Dependence Biological Psychiatry, 74 (2), 137-144 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.11.016

Hu, Y., Salmeron, B., Gu, H., Stein, E., & Yang, Y. (2015). Impaired Functional Connectivity Within and Between Frontostriatal Circuits and Its Association With Compulsive Drug Use and Trait Impulsivity in Cocaine Addiction JAMA Psychiatry, 72 (6) DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1

Pokhrel, P., Herzog, T., Black, D., Zaman, A., Riggs, N., & Sussman, S. (2013). Adolescent Neurocognitive Development, Self-Regulation, and School-Based Drug Use Prevention Prevention Science, 14 (3), 218-228 DOI: 10.1007/s11121-012-0345-7

Romero, M., Asensio, S., Palau, C., Sanchez, A., & Romero, F. (2010). Cocaine addiction: Diffusion tensor imaging study of the inferior frontal and anterior cingulate white matter Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 181 (1), 57-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.07.004

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Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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