Study Yields New Leads for Anti-Addiction Medications

Cocaine is one of the most habit-forming drugs on the illicit market. It sits up there with heroin and meth in terms of how quickly and how strongly it can hijack the brain of an abuser. With the very first snort, a person using cocaine is setting the stage for a craving to do it again. Treating addiction to cocaine has long been a challenge, but as researchers begin to untangle everything that cocaine does in the human brain, we get closer to an effective, medical treatment. A medical treatment could be a valuable addition to the counselors and therapists that already help so many addicts.

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.

Posted on March 18th, 2014

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