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Psychol Addict Behav. 2013 Jun;27(2):351-365. doi: 10.1037/a0029258. Epub 2012 Jul 9.

Retraining the addicted brain: a review of hypothesized neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness-based relapse prevention.

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Department of Psychology.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.


Addiction has generally been characterized as a chronic relapsing condition (Leshner, 1999). Several laboratory, preclinical, and clinical studies have provided evidence that craving and negative affect are strong predictors of the relapse process. These states, as well as the desire to avoid them, have been described as primary motives for substance use. A recently developed behavioral treatment, mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), was designed to target experiences of craving and negative affect and their roles in the relapse process. MBRP offers skills in cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention integrated with mindfulness meditation. The mindfulness practices in MBRP are intended to increase discriminative awareness, with a specific focus on acceptance of uncomfortable states or challenging situations without reacting "automatically." A recent efficacy trial found that those randomized to MBRP, as compared with those in a control group, demonstrated significantly lower rates of substance use and greater decreases in craving following treatment. Furthermore, individuals in MBRP did not report increased craving or substance use in response to negative affect. It is important to note, areas of the brain that have been associated with craving, negative affect, and relapse have also been shown to be affected by mindfulness training. Drawing from the neuroimaging literature, we review several plausible mechanisms by which MBRP might be changing neural responses to the experiences of craving and negative affect, which subsequently may reduce risk for relapse. We hypothesize that MBRP may affect numerous brain systems and may reverse, repair, or compensate for the neuroadaptive changes associated with addiction and addictive-behavior relapse.

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