Aerobic exercise can help treat drug or alcohol addiction by changing the brain's reward system, a study has found. Also known as "cardio", aerobic exercise is brisk exercise that increases heart rate, breathing and the circulation of oxygen through the blood, and is associated with reducing many negative health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. It is also associated with numerous mental health benefits, such as reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
University of Buffalo scientists in the US have identified a key mechanism for how aerobic exercise can help to influence the brain to support treatment and addiction prevention strategies. "Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise in addition to these benefits effectively prevents the onset, increase and relapse of substance use in a number of categories such as alcohol, nicotine, stimulants and opioids," said Panayotis Thanos, senior researcher at the University of Buffalo. "Our work seeks to identify the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that control these changes," Thanos said.
Using animal models, researchers found that daily aerobic exercise changed the mesolimbic dopamine pathway in the brain. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter associated with substance use disorders and plays an important role in reward, motivation and learning.
"The current work investigates whether exercise could normalize the dopamine signaling pathway, which was altered by chronic drug use, providing important support for how exercise could serve as a treatment strategy for substance abuse," he said.
"Further studies focusing on people with substance use disorders should help researchers develop new methods to integrate motion into treatment regimens that can prevent recurrences, Thanos said.