A new study that was published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that cocaine so profoundley changes the brain that it makes a relapse more likely. The changes on the brain include a molecular mechanism in the reward center of the brain, which is the part of the brain that controls the feel good vibes addicts get when they take drugs. If a stressful event occurs, the molecular mechanism pushes the brain to tell the user that doing the drugs will make it better, and this makes relapse a more likely scenario. While this study only looked at cocaine, there is a lot of commonalities between cocaine addiction and other types of addition.
The research team studied the effects of cocaine on rat brain cells during in vitro, but also studied this in live rats, and also studied how the addiction to cocaine responded during stressful situations. The lead researcher, Dr. Peter McCormick, who works at the University of East Anglia School of Pharmacy, wanted to find out what causes the relapse among cocaine users. Cocaine users are one of the biggest groups to have relapses, so it’s important to identify what triggers can set off the relapse. In terms of how the brain works, the neuropeptides are responsible for carrying information between all of the neurons within the brain, and it’s part of the brain’s communication system. There are two specific neuropeptides that are in the reward center of the brain, which is where the drug addiction and motivation comes from.
The study might have been done on mice, but the same types of receptors are around in humans too, and function the same way in terms of drug addiction and stress. There has always been speculation about the neuroreceptors being responsible for controlling the stress system and reward system, but this proved that it does indeed happen that way. The neuropeptides influence the reward center part of the brain, and there are significant changes in the brain when exposed to cocaine, especially over a period of time.
The research study showed a direct connection to cocaine and the disruption of these receptors, and then the impact of stress on the receptors. If researchers can find a way to restore the interaction between the receptors, it can help reduce the risk of relapse in terms of cocaine addiction. More specifically, this means that a stress-driven relapse would be less likely if there was a way to protect and restore the interaction between the two receptors.
While cocaine has severe effects on the brain and changes the way things are done in the brain, the reward system overall is the same way with any types of drugs, such as heroin or painkillers. In terms of what this study means in a broader scale, it can lay the foundation for finding a way to decrease how traumatic events and stress impact these receptors in the brain. This could especially help soldiers who are going through post-traumatic stress disorder who are prone to addiction, and it could help addicts from all walks of life.
Since this study is groundbreaking in terms of finding the mechanisms responsible in the brain, the next step would be to develop some type of medication or treatment that could fix the broken interaction. There are various treatments for drug addiction, most of which focus on therapy to get through the trauma that creates the need to get away. Some treatment options do talk about the reward center of the brain, but focuses more on trying to manually rewire it to find new ways to active the reward system. In this instance, we now know the receptors involved, which means a medication could specifically target these receptors. More studies and research will need to be done in order to determine just how to go about fixing the broken interaction, and then if a medication could be developed, human trials and other trials would need to be done before anything would hit the markets.