Hacking the Brain to Prevent Cocaine Relapse

Hacking the Brain to Prevent Cocaine Relapse

Cocaine use affects a part of the brain known as the pleasure center by increasing levels of dopamine, a chemical which creates a euphoric feeling when it dumps into the system. Users easily become addicted to the bursts of euphoria because, while short-lived, the strength of the resulting high surpasses what is typically associated with everyday pleasures like having sex or eating food.

In other words, some people who use cocaine will begin depending on the drug as an easily achievable source of great pleasure. Repeated exposure to cocaine, however, will alter the normal function in the pleasure center, thus opening the door for physical dependence, a condition synonymous with cocaine addiction.

Just because an addict makes the decision to enter a cocaine treatment program doesn’t mean their longing to use cocaine will disappear.

People dependent on this drug have a strong urge to keep consuming, especially since their ‘source’ is no longer accessible. So relapses occur with regularity and recovery programs must help their patients cope with these episodes to return to a sober lifestyle. Medication-based treatment options abound for those addicted to things like alcohol and opioids, but not for cocaine addicts. For these people, sobriety goals are reached with the help of psychotherapeutic therapy known as behavioral intervention. In-patient programs (also known as therapeutic communities) are available, too.

What if there was a new approach to relapse prevention?

In a study published last October, in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a team of American researchers uncovered a potential method of stopping relapses from occurring in cocaine addicts. While there is currently no medication to help prevent relapse, this new method involves a slight alteration in the area of the brain which supports relapse in people recovering from cocaine addiction.

In the study, researchers used laboratory (animal) testing to explore the changes in relapse risk which occur when the AMPA receptors inside the brain’s pleasure center are genetically altered a bit. These receptors help produce chemical signals that encourage a return to cocaine intake in addicted users. Normally.

What happened during the study:

  1. One group of rats was given free access to a cocaine supply for three weeks. Following this three-week period, the animals were then denied all access to the drug for a week.
  2. A second control group of rats was not exposed to the drug.
  3. After comparing the pleasure centers of the ‘user rats’ to those of the ‘sober’ rats, researchers were able to conclude that the cocaine-exposed group experienced changes in their AMPA receptors which increased the desire to return to active drug intake.
  4. The researchers then exposed a third group of rats to cocaine followed by going in and genetically altering the animals’ AMPA receptors. When these animals were given access to cocaine after undergoing the alteration, they exhibited a substantially diminished desire to use the drug.

What the study means:

It is now believed there’s a new approach to developing treatments for helping people recovering from cocaine addiction. The new method involves basically “turning off” or “turning down” the chemical signals that would normally increase the urges of cocaine-users, driving them to a cocaine relapse.

Further research is needed before knowing for certain if developing treatments of this type, with real-world effectiveness, are a possibility but those of us in the recovery community are excited  by the idea and hopeful.

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