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Scientists discovering new approaches to restore self-regulation after addiction

The brain on autopilot versus manual

Daily living requires a combination of two types of behaviors: habitual and goal-directed. For example, a typical morning routine includes behaviors that are habitual, such as bathing, grooming and breakfast preparation. But the brain must also be able to shift back and forth to goal-directed behavior, such as making a special phone call or running a particular errand. This switch could be compared to an airline captain switching back and forth between autopilot and manual, as necessary. The ability to make such shifts is impaired in people with addiction and some mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Scientific underpinnings of self-regulation

The past decade of research on the neurobiology of behavior has revealed which brain structures and neurotransmitters underlie various behavioral patterns. Reduced activity in certain parts of the brain has been associated with habit formation. Endocannabinoids (EC’s) are chemicals produced in the body that generally reduce the activity of neurons and appear to be critical to habit formation. They were named after their molecular similarity to substances found in the marijuana plant. Recently, scientists have found that EC’s may actually be what controls the shift between habitual behavior and goal-directed behavior.

The researchers utilized a transgenic mouse model to determine how EC’s affect behavior. Mice were trained to get food in two different ways: one by habit and the other using goal-directed behavior. A group of mice were genetically altered to lack specific EC receptors and were compared to a normal group of mice. The modified mice did not form habits and always used goal-directed responses to get the food reward. Normal mice preferred to get food using habitual responses.

The authors concluded that habitual behavior and goal-directed behavior occur along competing brain circuits mediated by EC’s. In other words, EC’s are the lever that switches the brain back and forth between autopilot and manual. They further speculated that, if their findings extrapolate to humans, strategies that would promote a balance between the two circuits could be developed to improve decision-making and self-regulate goal-directed behavior, particularly for those with addictions or neuropsychiatric illnesses.

Healthy habits and a goal-directed lifestyle

Neurohormonal modulation occurs within all organ systems, including the brain and endocannabinoid system. Maintaining physical health is integral for maintaining neurohormonal function and mental health. Avoiding the use of alcohol and drugs, including exogenous cannabinoids allows the body to maintain homeostasis much more easily and effectively. Daily exercise, quality sleep, adequate nutrition, exposure to sunlight and healthy social relationships also are required for optimal neurological functioning.

Unhealthy habits can be difficult to break and interfere with the achievement of both short and long-term goals. Those with substance use disorders and underlying or co-occurring mental disorders may find it difficult to change their behavior without any assistance from others. This difficulty is not due to inherent weakness, but is rather largely related to alterations in neurochemical processes and brain function. Treatment is available that can help anyone recover from addiction, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. If you or someone you love is struggling, seek help from a behavioral health care specialist today.

About Sovereign Health of Texas

Sovereign Health of Texas is a leader in specialized residential treatment for those struggling with mental health disorders, substance use disorders or both. Our El Paso, Texas location provides safe and comfortable detoxification, intensive behavioral therapy and lifestyle management skills so that clients can find mental and physical health. Aftercare planning and ongoing support helps to ensure that healthy habits become long-lasting building blocks that create a brighter future day by day. To learn more about our treatment programs, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model.  For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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