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Cocaine Addiction’s On/Off Switch


A new study shows that stimulation of the prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain involved in impulse control and decision making) of rats reduces cravings and compulsive cocaine-seeking behavior.  Scientists at the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) – performed this groundbreaking study.

“This is the first study to show a cause-and-effect relationship between cocaine-induced brain deficits in the prefrontal cortex and compulsive cocaine-seeking,” said NIDA’s Dr. Billy Chen, first author of the study.  “These results provide evidence for a cocaine-induced deficit within a brain region that is involved in disorders characterized by poor impulse control, including addiction.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), previous studies have established a current, influential hypothesis about cocaine-induced changes in brain functioning.  The hypothesis is that cocaine damages prefrontal cortex neurons, making them “sluggish” – which in turn, intensifies cravings for cocaine – leading to a vicious cycle of cocaine addiction.  The scientists of the new study wanted to test this hypothesis that came out of the previous studies.

For the new study, scientists placed light-sensitive proteins in prefrontal cortex neurons (brain cells) of rats.  The scientists then used a laser to turn the cells on and off.  When the cells were turned “on,” the rats no longer experienced cocaine cravings; and as one might expect, turning the cells “off” increased cravings and compulsive cocaine-seeking behavior in the rats.

“When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone,” Dr. Antonello Bonci, NIDA scientific director and senior author of the study, reported.

The scientists are now designing human clinical trials based on this study.  They state that any new human therapy will not be based on using lasers due to obvious safety concerns.  They say that human trials will most likely experiment with using electromagnetic stimulation outside the scalp – in particular a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

“What I find to be an exceptional breakthrough is that our results can be immediately translated to clinical research settings with humans, and we are planning clinical trials to stimulate this brain region using non-invasive methods,” said Dr. Antonello Bonci.  “By targeting a specific portion of the prefrontal cortex, our hope is to reduce compulsive cocaine-seeking and craving in patients.”

This study is a very promising start for the future of addiction treatment.

“This exciting study offers a new direction of research for the treatment of cocaine and possibly other addictions,” NIDA Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow, said in the NIH news release.  “We already knew, mainly from human brain imaging studies, that deficits in the prefrontal cortex are involved in drug addiction. Now that we have learned how fundamental these deficits are, we feel more confident than ever about the therapeutic promise of targeting that part of the brain.”


Works Cited:

1. “Laser Light Zaps Away Cocaine Addiction.” UCSF. 3 April 2013. Web. 10 April 2013.

2. “Neuroplasticity in the mesolimbic dopamine system and cocaine addiction.” NIH. 17 March 2008. Web. 10 April 2013.

3. “NIH study sheds light on how to reset the addicted brain.” NIH. 3 April 2013. Web. 10 April 2013.


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Filed under: Addiction, Alcohol and Drugs, Latest News, Research, Substance Abuse, Treatment · Tags: Addiction, Addiction Treatment, brain, brain cells, cocaine, Cocaine Addiction, cocaine addiction treatment, cocaine cravings, cocaine-induced brain deficits, compulsive cocaine-seeking, compulsive cocaine-seeking behavior, Cravings, cravings for cocaine, decision making, drug addiction, electromagnetic stimulation, impulse control, laser, National Institutes of Health, NIH, prefrontal cortex, prefrontal cortex neurons, rats, therapeutic promise, therapy, TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation

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