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Aerobic exercise may help treat drug or alcohol addiction

Aerobic exercise may help treat drug or alcohol addiction by preventing the flood of a feel-good chemical, new research suggests.

University of Buffalo scientists believe integrating exercise into current treatment could boost success rates of addicts wanting to quit.

Animal trials show running each day can stop the flood of dopamine that can leave some hooked on harmful substances.

Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter linked with substance use disorders. It plays an important role in reward, motivation and learning. 

Animal trials show running each day can stop the flood of dopamine that can leave some hooked on harmful substances

NHS guidelines recommend adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week, such as brisk walking.

It is already known to slash the risk of heart disease, arthritis and diabetes – and some studies have suggested it can prevent relapses. 

How was the study carried out? 

The new experiment, led by Dr Panayotis Thanos, was conducted on rats who either ran on a treadmill five days a week or were sedentary.

Brain scans of the rodents were then taken after six weeks to assess any exercise-induced changes in their dopamine signalling pathways. 


Aerobic exercise such as walking and running may halt dementia by preventing the brain from shrinking, research suggested in November 2017.

Being active several times a week maintains the size of the region of the brain associated with memory, a study found.

Known as the hippocampus, this region is often one of the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s patients.

Lead author Joseph Firth from the Western Sydney University, said: ‘When you exercise you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to prevent age-related decline by reducing the deterioration of the brain.

‘In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance programme for the brain.’

The scientists, from the universities of Western Sydney and Manchester, analysed 14 studies with a total of 737 participants.

The participants were aged between 24 and 76, with an average age of 66.

They were made up of healthy individuals, Alzheimer’s patients and people with mental health problems, such as depression and schizophrenia.

Scans of the participants’ brains were investigated before and after completing exercise, such as walking or treadmill running.

The exercise programmes lasted between three months and two years, with participants completing two to five sessions a week.  

What did the study find?

The experts discovered the rats who exercised had different mesolimbic dopamine pathways – which carries the neurotransmitter from one part of the brain to another.

They also had 21 per cent lower dopamine receptor one-like binding levels in their nucleus accumbens shell – part of the brain’s reward pathway.

The study, by scientists at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, was published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

How does alcohol leave you hooked? 

Alcohol and other drugs, such as heroin, trigger a flood of dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain.

But over time, this process can leave some people hooked on harmful substances as the brain remembers the euphoria.

Frequent boozing also causes dopamine levels to plummet – meaning many turn to the bottle for a quick fix and mood boost. 

Dr Thanos said: ‘Several studies have shown… aerobic exercise has been effective in preventing the start, increase and relapse of substance use.’

He pointed to alcohol, nicotine, stimulants and opioids – which can include heroin, morphine and fentanyl – as examples. 

Dr Thanos added: ‘Our work seeks to help identify the underlying neurobiological mechanisms driving these changes.

Further studies needed 

He called for further studies to focus on humans with substance use disorders to help researchers find new ways to ‘integrate exercise into treatment regimens’.  

The study comes just weeks after Australian researchers claimed to have invented a new pill that could cure drug and alcohol addictions.

An expert team at the University of Sydney spent more than a decade developing SOC-1. Trials are set to begin in the next few years.