Distinct neurocognitive profiles observed in various addictive behaviors



New research published in the journal Addictive Behaviors has found that different addictive behaviors are linked to specific cognitive and personality traits. The findings shed light on the distinct neurocognitive profiles associated with various types of addiction.

Addiction, whether involving substances like alcohol or behaviors like excessive eating and internet use, can have severe consequences for an individual’s mental and physical health. Understanding the brain functions associated with these behaviors is essential for developing effective prevention and intervention strategies.

Previous research has shown that addictive behaviors can result in poor self-regulation, impulsivity, and compulsivity. However, there has been limited research comparing these neurocognitive functions across different types of addictions. This study aims to fill that gap.

“Addiction has always been an issue quite close to my heart. I have seen the devastating impact of addiction on family members and was always interested in understanding why some people are more likely to develop an addiction than others,” said study author Erynn Christensen, a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and Zucker Hillside Hospital.

“I have also always been interested in implicit neurocognitive functions or in other terms, implicit thinking styles – the way our brains process information about things and make decisions. These functions can be measured by specially designed tasks or games that can provide insight into how someone’s brain works.”

“I think these functions are particularly cool because one may not be actively aware that their brain uses particular strategies to make decisions but these strategies can be really impactful on someone’s behavior – like addiction. I wanted to look at how someone’s implicit thinking styles might make them more prone to engaging in addictive behaviors.”

“For example, are people who find it hard to control their impulses more likely to have problems with addiction? Are people who can adaptively learn from reward less likely to have problems with addiction than those who cannot? If you are more likely to make risky decisions are you also more likely to develop addiction?

“What I find particularly cool about these neurocognitive processes/thinking styles is that they have the potential to change and in some instances may be trainable. So if we can pinpoint specific functions that might make someone at risk for addiction, in theory, we could help people train these functions to reduce their risk of developing addiction or help someone gain better control of their addictive behaviors.”

To investigate the neurocognitive correlates of different addictive behaviors, Christensen and her colleagues recruited a diverse group of participants from the general community. They used various recruitment channels, including Prolific, social media advertisements, and local community newsletters.

The study included 944 Australian participants aged 18 to 65 who were free from neurological disorders and psychotic conditions. The participants completed a series of online tasks and self-report questionnaires on the Qualtrics platform, designed to measure various cognitive functions and traits related to addiction.

Psychological distress emerged as a common factor across all four addictive behaviors. Increased levels of psychological distress were associated with higher levels of problematic alcohol use, addictive eating, problematic pornography use, and problematic internet use.

But the researchers found that different addictive behaviors were associated with unique profiles of neurocognitive functioning. For instance, poorer performance monitoring was significantly associated with higher levels of problematic pornography use and problematic internet use. Performance monitoring involves the ability to evaluate and adjust actions.

But there were no significant neurocognitive deficits associated with problematic alcohol use or addictive eating. This suggests that these behaviors might not be linked to the same cognitive deficits observed in other addictions.

“I was surprised that we did not find more similarities in neurocognitive functions related to addictive behaviours across the different behavior types, particularly given the general sentiment in the field of addiction is that there are a set of core neurocognitive functions that are related to addictions,” Christensen told PsyPost.

The researchers also examined the roles of self-reported impulsivity and compulsivity.

Higher levels of urgency, which is the tendency to act rashly in response to intense emotions, were linked to more severe problematic pornography use and internet use. This suggests that individuals who are more likely to make impulsive decisions when experiencing strong emotions are at a greater risk for these specific addictive behaviors.

Sensation seeking, the tendency to pursue novel, intense, and thrilling experiences often without considering the potential risks, was positively associated with problematic alcohol use. This indicates that individuals who actively seek out new and exciting experiences may be more prone to excessive alcohol consumption, possibly due to the stimulating effects of alcohol.

Higher trait compulsivity, characterized by performing repetitive actions that are inappropriate to a given situation, was linked to more severe addictive eating and problematic internet use. This finding implies that individuals who exhibit compulsive behaviors, which are often driven by an uncontrollable urge to repeat certain actions, are more likely to struggle with these non-substance-related addictions.

“This particular study looked at multiple potentially addictive behaviours (eating, pornography use, internet use and alcohol use) and investigated whether these behaviours share core underlaying neurocognitive features,” Christensen summarized. “In other words, is there a core set of implicit thinking styles that are associated with all of these different addictive behaviours, or does each behavior have a unique decision-making profile?”

“What we found was that different decision-making styles/neurocognitive functions were associated with different addictive behaviours. Our findings suggest that there may be partly distinct pathways to addiction depending on the addictive behaviour in question. Given this, it may be important to tailor treatments to focus on the specific behaviour-related decision-making styles instead of assuming these functions are the same across addictions.”

But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“Our research was conducted looking at a general community sample, so addictive behavior engagement was much lower than what you would find for clinical samples – studies that include participants who already have a formal diagnosis,” Christensen noted. “It is possible that we didn’t find some associations because these neurocognitive functions may not be as relevant at lower severities of addictive behavior. It would be good to replicate our work in clinical samples to see whether these decision-making profiles hold in more severe cases of addiction.”

“The next step is to test whether these neurocognitive functions/decision-making styles can predict addictive behaviors and whether different functions predict different behaviors. We have another paper coming out soon in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions that addresses this very question!”

The study, “The neurocognitive correlates of non-substance addictive behaviors,” was authored by Erynn Christensen, Lucy Albertella, Samuel R. Chamberlain, Maja Brydevall, Chao Suo, Jon E. Grant, Murat Yücel, and Rico Sze Chun Lee.



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