A pill that could help kick cocaine addiction by altering the way brain processes chemical addiction may be closer to reality, scientists say.
New research from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that a method of biologically manipulating certain neurocircuits could lead to a pharmacological approach that would weaken post-withdrawal cocaine cravings.
Researchers led by Pitt neuroscience professor Yan Dong used rat models to examine the effects of cocaine addiction and withdrawal on nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens, a small region in the brain that is commonly associated with reward, emotion, motivation, and addiction.
Specifically, they investigated the roles of synapses - the structures at the ends of nerve cells that relay signals.
When an individual uses cocaine, some immature synapses are generated, which are called "silent synapses" because they send few signals under normal physiological conditions.
After that individual quits using cocaine, these "silent synapses" go through a maturation phase and acquire the ability to send signals.
Once they can send signals, the synapses will send craving signals for cocaine if the individual is exposed to cues that previously led him or her to use the drug.
The researchers hypothesised that if they could reverse the maturation of the synapses, the synapses would remain silent, thus rendering them unable to send craving signals.
They examined a chemical receptor known as CP-AMPAR that is essential for the maturation of the synapses. In their experiments, the synapses reverted to their silent states when the receptor was removed.
"Reversing the maturation process prevents the intensification process of cocaine craving," said Dong, the study's corresponding author and assistant professor of neuroscience in Pitt's Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
"We are now developing strategies to maintain the 'reversal' effects. Our goal is to develop biological and pharmacological strategies to produce long-lasting de-maturation of cocaine-generated silent synapses," Dong said.
The findings are published in journal Nature Neuroscience.