Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina may have uncovered one of the most promising therapies for the future treatment of people suffering from cocaine addiction.

The experiments targeted the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that partially mediates relapse resistance and is located slightly above and behind our eyes. This part of the brain is said to be responsible for storing extinction memory, which helps suppress emotional responses to drug cues. By targeting the extinction memory, a person’s response to certain stimuli will eventually diminish.

Scientists hoped to restrain the response to the dopamine (the happiness hormone) rush caused by cocaine by using designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs (DREADDs) to activate the extinction memory region. To test the theory, they obtained viruses carrying the DREADD gene and inserted the viruses into cells, causing them to grow receptors. These receptors release a protein encoded by the DREADD gene that causes those receptors to be activated by any drug designed to bind to the protein. Ultimately, the researchers were trying to determine if the DREADD gene could reduce cocaine seeking behaviors in addicted individuals.

“This new approach for treating drug addiction is exactly what is needed because it is targeted to a specific circuit in the brain regulating addiction. This may allow the circuit to be selectively regulated with minimum side effects on other circuits and brain functions,” said researcher Peter W. Kalivas in the Journal of Neuroscience.[1]

The Experiment

illustration of a DNA strand with one segment highlighted representing the DREADD geneLab rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine by using one of two levers – one which was active and the other which was not. When the rats pressed the active lever, they were given a dose of cocaine along with a brief audio tone and a pulse of light to serve as the drug cues. This went on for several days until the rats learned to associate the light and sound with cocaine.

The drug was then removed. Afterward, the DREADD gene was inserted into the rats’ ventromedial prefrontal cortices. Following a stretch of two weeks of abstinence from cocaine, the rats were given access to the two levers again for 10 days, however, this time neither lever produced cocaine nor any cues. On the 11th day, the drug cues were returned in a relapse test in which half of the rats were given DREADD and the others were not. After, the rats were given an extra relapse test in which they were given a low dose of cocaine.

The rats that were given DREADD relapsed less when exposed to drug cues compared to the rats that were not. However, when exposed to cocaine again, all of the rats relapsed, regardless of whether or not they were administered DREADD.[2]

What Does it All Mean?

While the researchers were proven right in their hypothesis that the use of the DREADD gene can reduce the risk of relapse to associated drug cues, it did not diminish vulnerability to cocaine itself.

The eventual hope is that humans suffering from cocaine addiction will be able to take a pill form of DREADD to activate the extinction memory of their brains and limit their susceptibility to relapse during recovery.

A pill form of DREADD may limit
cocaine addicts’ susceptibility to relapse
when combined with counseling

The researchers noted that extinction memory is not as powerful as the emotional connection to drug abuse, so this strategy would be most effective when combined with psychological counseling.

However, humans will still have to wait a while before being able to use this technique. More research must be conducted to ascertain the safety of using DREADDs in humans.

The Scope and Threat of Cocaine Addiction and Abuse in America

With all of the national headlines about prescription opioid and heroin addiction, discussions about cocaine addiction have faded to the background. This does not mean, however, that it isn’t a problem. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were 1.5 million current cocaine users over the age of 12 in 2014. Adults from the ages of 18-to-25 have the highest rate of current cocaine usage among any other age group, with 1.4 percent of this group reporting past month use.

The survey also revealed that approximately 914,000 Americans met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) criteria for cocaine dependence or abuse.[3] Even further, data from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 42 percent from 2001-to-2014.[4]
graph illustrating the dramatic increase in cocaine overdose deaths from 2001 to 2014
Abuse of cocaine can lead to a host of physical, mental and emotional health problems, including:

  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Frequent nose bleeds
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Severe bowel decay from reduced blood flow
  • Risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C or other bloodborne diseases if drug is injected
  • Malnourishment
  • Development of Parkinson’s disease
  • Paranoia
  • Intense chest pain
  • Increased risk of stroke, seizure or heart attack
  • Bleeding within the brain
  • Auditory hallucinations[5]

The more a person uses and abuses cocaine, the more likely he or she is to develop tolerance to the drug, often leading to increased use. Additionally, continued abuse of cocaine inhibits the user’s ability to feel pleasure through natural stimuli. Constant flooding of the brain with dopamine causes changes to circuits involved with stress, making an abuser more likely to feel displeasure and experience negative moods. All of these effects combine to make an individual with cocaine addiction more likely to seek drugs for pleasure, as opposed to food, entertainment or other natural rewards.[6]

Learn How to Overcome Cocaine Addiction

Chronic cocaine abuse will not only lead to myriad health difficulties, but it may also lead to an overall deterioration of a person’s life. The potential consequences include damaged familial and romantic relationships, increased risk of legal and financial problems and diminished work and school performances.

Many people trying to defeat their cocaine addiction or addiction to any other drug wrongly assume they can be successful with a self-rehab. While this has worked to some degree for a small amount of people, this strategy often focuses solely on the detoxification process and does not account for the stronger psychological attachments developed toward the drug. A successful rehab must account for mental cues, environmental triggers, family history, mental health and many other factors. Accomplishing this without a monitored environment and the help of professionals is nearly impossible.

At Unity Recovery Center, our addiction care experts design personalized recovery strategies to put our patients in the best possible position to succeed. We don’t rely on the one-size-fits-all approach that plagues most of the addiction recovery industry. Everyone is different, which means that everyone’s experience with addiction is different. A person’s recovery strategy should reflect his or her individual needs – that’s the Unity Rehab way. Contact us at 877-772-5505 to begin your journey to sobriety.


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