Exercise helps treat addiction by altering brain’s dopamine system

New research by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions has identified a key mechanism in how aerobic exercise can help impact the brain in ways that may support treatment — and even prevention strategies — for addiction.

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.

“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,” says Panayotis (Peter) Thanos, PhD, RIA senior research scientist and senior author of the study. “Our work seeks to help identify the underlying neurobiological mechanisms driving these changes.”

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.

“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,” he says.

“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,” Thanos adds.

The current study was funded by the NY Research Foundation and appears in the online edition of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. The article authors include Lisa S. Robison, PhD, a former graduate student of Thanos, of the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics, Albany Medical College, Sabrina Swenson, postbaccalaureate fellow, John Hamilton, graduate student, and Thanos, of the Behavioral Neuropharmacology and Neuroimaging Laboratory on Addictions (BNNLA), Research Institute on Addictions and Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

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