“Conventional technology used up until now monitors a designated region of the brain, but the data tend to be noisy,” Childress says. As a result, it’s harder for researchers to determine what regions of the brain are important to control for feedback exercises. “But whole-brain information cancels out a lot of the noise.”
The researchers found that both addicts and healthy people could control their state of mind equally well, something Childress says is encouraging for future studies. “The patients who have trouble controlling their craving could still demonstrate control over this sort of non-emotional test,” she says. That confirms what earlier studies had suggested: Addicts’ cognitive control issues are not linked to more general thinking, but instead limited to more emotionally charged thoughts, like cravings.
However, Childress’s team will need to develop specialized tasks to figure out how to apply this to addiction and other disorders. For therapy, “You really need feedback from localized regions that have to do with their disease, and have people learn to control them,” says Rainer Goebel, a professor of psychology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands who has done similar work with depression patients.
The University of Pennsylvania researchers are now developing just such a training program. For example, researchers might show cocaine addicts images or videos that involve stereotyped cocaine images, classify the brain region, and then use brain training to teach people how to dampen the activity in that part of the brain.