Study Yields New Leads for Anti-Addiction Medications
Cocaine and Reward
What makes cocaine (and other addictive drugs) so tempting is how it effects what scientists call the reward system in the brain. What researchers have long known is that when you ingest a mind-altering substance like cocaine, you get a high that is caused by a flood of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or a brain-signaling chemical, that is responsible for giving you a pleasurable sensation.
Many stimuli can cause you to get a dopamine high, but drugs cause a waterfall of the neurotransmitter unmatched by any other pleasurable life experience. This is why people abuse these drugs again and again. The reward is big and it can be challenging to resist going after that reward again and again.
New Cocaine Research
What has been unknown for a long time is just how cocaine imparts that important change in the brain that leads to a high, and with repeated use, addiction. Researchers at the Ichahn School of Medicine Friedman Brain Institute, a part of Mount Sinai hospital in New York, may have uncovered the mechanism by which cocaine works in the brain.
To puzzle it all out, the researchers worked with mice addicted to cocaine. They found that using cocaine regularly caused increased production of an enzyme, called PARP-1, in the addicted mices’ brains. The enzyme was already known to scientists and had been under investigation for cancer treatments. This research is the first to implicate the enzyme in cocaine addiction.
The researchers also looked at how the increase in the PARP-1 enzyme affected genes. They found that it turned on certain genes that further increased the reward cycle in the brain. The changes in the genes also caused physical changes in brain cells responsible for signaling with dopamine. This means that repeated cocaine use physically alters the structure of the brain, another reason that quitting is difficult.
Understanding Addiction for Treatment
As with any other medical illness, finding a treatment depends on understanding how the disease works in the body. By figuring out how cocaine impacts the reward system in the brain, changes cell structures, and leads to addiction, researchers can now work on developing an effective treatment. While addiction is a complicated disease that requires a multi-faceted treatment approach, medications could be a big help to addicts struggling to quit and to resist the urge to relapse.
The new research may lead to the creation of drugs that could target various aspects of cocaine action in the brain. If a new drug could block the increase of the PARP-1 enzyme, for example, cocaine would not be able to cause a high in the user. With no high, there would be no temptation to abuse it. This type of medication could be very important to addicts who can’t quit because the cravings and withdrawal symptoms are so intense.