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When the body becomes dependent on cocaine, breaking the habit can be a painful and arduous process. The way it interacts with our brain chemistry, specifically dopamine, can quickly form habitual use and dependency. Researchers out of the Oregon Health & Science University have discovered a possible treatment strategy to make ditching cocaine easier, dopamine denial.
Most commonly snorted, cocaine is absorbed into the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain. Once in the brain, cocaine binds to certain receptors and halts the usual process of dopamine removal. As more of “the feel-good chemical” collects, a euphoria effect occurs for the user. Part of the addictive nature of cocaine is the relatively short high. When snorted, a cocaine high usually lasts from 15 to 30 minutes. If injected or smoked, a high dissipates even more quickly.
Unlike alcohol, cocaine withdrawal doesn’t usually create many serious physiological repercussions. More commonly, recovering cocaine addicts run into trouble as their brain chemistry changes in response to a lack of the chemical effect of cocaine. Recovering users frequently experience mental illnesses like anxiety and depression when trying to come clean. These struggles can drive someone back to drug use even if it only creates momentary relief. As difficult as these circumstances can be, new research is uncovering a new possible treatment to ease addicts through recovery.
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While many other parts of the brain interact more frequently with dopamine, this study focuses on the amygdala. This part of the brain is made up of two almond shaped nodes responsible for certain emotions and their physiological responses. Fear is the emotion most prominently governed by the amygdala. For instance, when something scary is happening and your heart starts to race, the amygdala is the part of the brain that registers the fear and generates a response in your heart rate, breathing, sweating, and et cetera.
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In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers needed to administer drugs to the mice. They wanted to know if their approach reduced drug seeking and drug taking behavior. In order to simulate both of these they required the mice to push a lever, which revealed another lever. When pushed, the second lever would dose the mouse with the drug. Pushing the first lever demonstrated drug seeking behavior and pushing the second lever demonstrated drug taking behavior.
Once the mice had used drugs, the researchers began implementing their treatment. Their prediction was that blocking dopamine receptors in the amygdala may decrease both drug seeking and taking behaviors. In order to do this, administered dopamine antagonists to the mice. Agonism and antagonism both classify drugs by whether they activate or block a chemical receptor in the brain. This study focused on blocking dopamine, so the researchers needed a dopamine antagonist that can occupy the dopamine receptors in the amygdala.
When taking a dopamine antagonist alongside the cocaine, the mice displayed a steady decrease in both drug seeking and drug taking behavior. Because cocaine’s effect depends on dopamine, blocking the receptors essentially dulls the effect and can, to some extent, minimize the addictive quality of cocaine. These results promise a new type of treatment for addiction once fully researched. The researchers theorize that this type of drug could prove useful in avoiding relapse. By more effectively managing drug seeking behaviors, the anticipation and desire associated with taking the drug can have less of an effect on a recovering addict.
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