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Treating Addiction Urges

A study in rats, published in the April 3, 2013 online version of Nature, discovered that providing stimulation to a very specific portion of the brain decreases compulsive seeking behavior for cocaine. This particular finding suggests the possibility of a promising, new approach to effectively change addictive behaviors.

The compulsive taking of drugs causes a wide range of negative consequences for individuals from both social and health standpoints. Compulsive drug taking is considered to be one of the biggest challenges of tackling drug addictions in humans.

Researchers Looking to Gain Insight into Compulsive Drug Use

In the year 2011, it was estimated that close to one and one half million U.S. citizens, 12 years of age and up, had used cocaine in the past month. Currently, there are no approved medications for the therapeutic treatment of cocaine addiction. Researchers are conducting studies on laboratory animals in order to get new insight into the neurobiological processes associated with the compulsive use of drugs.

During research studies, trained rats were taught how to press levers in order to be given cocaine. Later in the course of the study, when dosages of cocaine were followed up with mild electrical shocks to the foot, the majority of the rats quit pressing the levers. However, there were some that continued to display compulsive seeking behavior as they kept pushing their levers regardless of the shocks they received.

Specific Brain Neurons Responsible for Compulsive Behavior in Lab Rats

These scientists examined the firing patterns of nerve cells in the brains of the shock resistant rat group and compared them to the shock sensitive group of rats. They analyzed a specific area of the brain's prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for both the control of inhibition and decision making. Both of these responses are compromised in humans who have addiction issues. Studies concentrated on the deep-layer pyramidal prelimbic neurons of the cortex. These particular cells reach into the brain regions that have previously been linked to drug seeking activity.

Their findings revealed that close to two times as much electrical current was required in order to stimulate brain neurons in the cocaine seeking rats as compared to the rats that had no exposure to the drug. The team of scientists argued that if these specific neurons are responsible for the compulsive behavior of the rats then neuron activation might effectively decrease levels of cocaine seeking.

A light based genetic method was used to either inhibit or activate pyramidal neurons of the prelimbic cortex of the rats' brains. Harmless viruses were injected in order to deliver protein producing genes that either inhibited or induced activity of the cells in response to specific wavelengths of light. Light pulses were delivered to the brains of the rats by way of tiny optic fibers that had been implanted. Researchers proved that stimulation of these neural cells decreased seeking of cocaine in the compulsive rats. Inhibiting the same cells increased seeking behavior for cocaine during sessions involving shocking of the rats' feet.


The exciting findings of this animal model study give renewed hope for the treatment of cocaine addiction as well as the potential for other types of addictions. Imaging performed on human brains has already shown that prefrontal cortex deficits are definitely associated with drug addictions. This study confirms that these are basic deficits. Thus, scientists are even more convinced about the therapeutic promise of targeting this brain region.


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