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What Makes a Habit So Hard to Break?

As anyone aiming to lose weight for a New Year’s resolution or give up tanning in Irvine, California for Lent knows well, breaking a bad habit is easier said than done.

Humans are creatures of habit — this rule applies to everything from brushing your teeth to less innocuous routines, such as drug or alcohol addictions. So from the bathroom to the drug rehab centers, what makes bad behaviors so, well, habit-forming?

New research from Duke University aims to shed light on the subject. In a study recently published in the journal Neuron, researchers examined the brains of mice trained to form sugar habits of varying severities. After getting mice addicted to sugar, researchers looked for distinct changes in brain circuitry.

Researchers found clear changes in the basal ganglia of sugar-addicted mice, a subcortical brain region associated with learning, pattern generation and motor control. Sugar-addicted mice exhibited stronger connections in the motivational loop of the basal ganglia, which connects to prefrontal regions of the brain associated with executive functions.

These pathways form a lasting connection in the brain, helping to solidify a habit for the long term. While this physical connection can be beneficial — such as when forming a healthy eating habit or going to the gym in Irvine, for instance — it can be detrimental to those in rehab centers suffering from a drug addiction.

These lasting connections also make habits harder to break once formed. Encountering the initial stimulant (such as chocolate) can elicit the remembered response (eating too much chocolate) even years later.

Luckily for everyone, scientists at hospitals and drug rehab centers from the East Coast to Irvine are working on ways to break those connections. Some researchers have used noninvasive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to access and disrupt these established circuits, breaking down a bad habit from the inside.

Creating a new habit, whether good or bad, results in lasting changes to brain circuitry. While high-tech brain stimulation may help those with severe cases (such as OCD) overcome unhealthy habits, behavioral strategies employed by drug rehab centers may be sufficient for kicking your average bad habit.