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Cocaine Addiction Creates New Backdoor Regions in Brain

Cocaine Addiction Creates New Backdoor Regions in Brain

Author: Shernide Delva

Ever wonder why cocaine is so addictive? New research reveals that cocaine addiction is difficult to control because it opens up a previous unknown ‘back door’ into the brain that bypasses a person’s self-control mechanisms.

Cocaine is a stimulant that overtime can be extremely addictive. Quitting can be very difficult and around four in ten people who relapse report having an intense craving for the drug. However, this means six out of ten people relapse from other reasons.

“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’,” explains Dr David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”

A second study was conducted which suggested that a more effective treatment could be out there to help users stop their addiction and damaging cocaine habit. Believe it or not, the pain killer paracetomol (also known acetaminophen) found in drugs like Tylenol may actually be able to help with cocaine addiction.

Drugs release a chemical in the brain called dopamine which helps provide the high feeling experienced by the user. Initially the user chooses to use the drug and overtime the drug becomes habitual and addictive. Previous research at Cambridge revealed that when rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine, dopamine was released as the rats sought out the drug. However, when rats were given the drug over an extended amount of time, it became more of a habitual behavior and the rats wereless in control.

The brain mechanisms that balance the goal-directed and habitual behaviors involve the prefrontal cortex. In the past, scientists believed that this region was overwhelmed by stimuli which initiated a craving response. However, this does not explain why the majority of individuals who relapse do not experience any cravings for cocaine prior to relapsing.

Chronic exposure to drugs overtime alters the prefrontal cortex and also an area of the brain called the basolateral amygdala which is associated with the link between a stimulus and an emotion. The cortex manipulates information while the amygdala stores the pleasurable memories associated with the cocaine drug use.

However, scientists not have identified a previously unknown pathway that links impulse with habits. The pathway links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum which circumvents the prefrontal cortex. Sounds complicated but essentially overtime the brain is able to develop new pathways  which scientists believes is what increases the desires of a drug addict to use the cocaine.

“We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case,” explains lead researcher Dr Belin. “We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behaviour.”

“Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”

Now that scientists know about this secret passage way, they believe they have found a way to use the drug paracetomol to treat cocaine addicted individuals. However, it will only work if the person is committed to quitting.

The challenge is to come up with a way of altering the brain so that it is more flexible to change. Hopefully, with this research, individuals who struggle with addiction are able to use a treatment that can help them quit and stay in control.

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