Biological Triggers for Cocaine Relapse Found

When it comes to treating drug addiction, relapse is arguably the core issue. The initial detoxification phase is challenging, but the threat of relapse continues for a long time afterward, and can easily undo all of the previous hard work. For cocaine in particular, there are problems because there are no medical treatments to work alongside the core psychological care. There have been many initial pieces of research investigating potential pharmacological approaches, but a new study has provided a novel insight into why relapse occurs, and could offer genuine hope for preventing it. Interestingly, the finding concerns the brain’s opioid receptors, even though cocaine is not an opioid drug, and the prime area of focus is a type of amino acid created naturally within the brain.
Biological Triggers for Cocaine Relapse Found

Treatments for Cocaine Addiction

Medical treatments for addiction are invaluable tools in recovery. For example, buprenorphine and naloxone are used to make the process of heroin (or other opioid) withdrawal more tolerable, and this makes it easier for the individual to focus on the vital, psychological aspects of treatment. Unfortunately, no such treatment exists for cocaine, meaning that those struggling with addiction to it have to weather the full physiological effects while going through challenging psychological treatment. This is why it’s become a furtive area of research, with ideas such as putting a figurative “brake” on the effects of dopamine (a central brain chemical in cocaine addiction) having obtained initial positive results.

The New Study – Using a Mouse Model to Investigate Cocaine Relapse

The researchers used a mouse “model” for human cocaine addiction in the research, since they seem to become addicted much like humans do when drugs like cocaine are available, and studies on mice are believed to be good predictors of effects on humans. The mice in the study were genetically modified to enable the researchers to investigate the impact of two opioid receptors and their main endogenous (meaning produced within the body) peptide chains on relapse to cocaine. The scientists genetically “deleted” the components, and after getting the mice addicted to cocaine and subsequently cutting off their supply (effectively forced detoxification), they investigated the effects of these deletions.

The findings showed that the peptides that work on the opioid receptors in question do have an important role to play in relapse. The researchers add, “However, our research also suggests that the opioid peptides derived from the precursor protein prodynorphin seem to play the opposite role,” meaning that it could potentially lead to a treatment to help prevent relapse in humans.

The Opioid System and Cocaine Addiction

It may seem puzzling that the opioid system of the brain is so integral to the process of relapse to cocaine, a non-opioid drug. The link between the two is found in their shared impact on the “reward” circuits in the brain, which are extremely important in cases of addiction to any drug. The opioid system helps control these circuits, but continued cocaine use impacts the way the components of it are expressed. While the details of this are complex, the core point is that there is a link between the opioid system and cocaine addiction that could be used to both better understand and (hopefully) to find new treatments for cocaine addiction.

Could It Lead to a New Treatment for Cocaine Addiction?

As always with research on animals, no matter how predictive the models are, there is no guarantee that the results can be replicated in humans. And that’s just one potential hurdle. This study offers only a preliminary finding - future studies would be needed to confirm the effect is genuine.

Even in the ideal situation - future positive results, a method for applying them in humans and more positive results in human trials - there is an important caveat. The neurological underpinnings of relapse are one thing, but the underlying psychological issues that drive individuals to take drugs are another entirely. Regardless of what happens with this new line of inquiry, the traditional psychological addiction treatment approach will always be essential for this reason. You can short-circuit the relapse mechanism for a drug, but if you don’t address these core issues, the individual will always be able to find a different, likely equally unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with them.

Posted on August 20th, 2014
Posted in Cocaine

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