Researchers may have discovered the initial steps to helping cocaine abusers overcome their addiction.
A study conducted by scientists at UCSF and the National Institute of Health found that activating neurons in the brainʼs prefrontal cortex eliminated cocaine addition in lab rats.
The paper, published this week in the journal Nature, suggested that clinical trial in humans is not far away.
The prefrontal cortex, which sits just behind the forehead, controls the decision making process, including impulse control, among other functions. Past studies have shown that cocaine addicts tend to show low brain activity in that region of the brain. The new research, however, indicates that the link between prefrontal cortex activity and cocaine addition may hold the key to reducing the drug's grip.
Scientists implanted light-sensitive proteins, called rhodophsins, into the prefrontal cortexes of the rats, some of who had already been made addicted to cocaine and some of who had not. The proteins allowed the scientist to control the prefrontal cortex activity in the rats, using a laser to turn the neurons on and off like a light switch.
When the neurons were stimulated, the addicted rats lost the compulsive behavior tied to their addiction. When the non-addicted ratsʼ neurons were switched off, they became addicted. So cocaine addiction therapy, the discovery indicates, could begin with treating the prefrontal cortex.
According to the research team, which included UCSF neurology professor Antonello Bonci, tools already exist to activate neurons in the human brain. A process called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a magnetic field and its resulting electric currents to induce brain activity, is an FDA-approved treatment for depression. Similar methods have also been tested to address migraines, strokes, Parkinsonʼs, and other neurological disorders.
Billy Chen, the paperʼs lead author and a staff scientist at the NIHʼs National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated that researchers are now designing clinical trial to test this possible addiction remedy on humans.