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Why Habits Are Hard To Break

Update Date: Jan 23, 2016 03:19 PM EST

Research from Duke University shows that habits tend to imprint circuits in the human brain, which makes it tough to overcome addictions and cravings.

"One day, we may be able to target these circuits in people to help promote habits that we want and kick out those that we don't want," Nicole Calakos, the study's senior investigator, said in a press release.

A test was conducted on mice that became addicted to sugar habits. They were given tiny sweets whenever they pressed a lever. The craving for the sugar, however, differed among the mice, and those who were hooked kept on pressing the lever even if they did not get the treat at the end.

Later, the researchers compared the brains of addicted mice with a control group that was not in the habit of craving for sugar. The research team studied basal ganglia activity, which is a network of brain regions that is responsible for studying the compulsive behaviors and addictions.

For the addicted mice, the "stop" and "go" signals, which are the two kinds of pathways in the basal ganglia tend to be more active. The timing of activation in both the pathways got changed in the addicted mice so that the go pathway got activated before the stop pathway.

"The go pathway's head start makes sense," said Calakos. "It could prime the animal to be more likely to engage in the behavior."

Calakos and his team experimented with breaking the habits of the mice when they rewarded them if they stopped pressing the lever. The team found that the successful mice exhibited weaker "go" cells.

The results of the study can help researchers to understand addiction better, even though using medication will be tough due to the basal ganglia's involvement in a number of functions.

The findings were published in the Jan. 21,2016 issue of Neuron.

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