Cocaine addiction studied through brain activity

All people from all social classes and ethnicities are vulnerable to the ubiquitous presence of drug addiction. Yet research into a cure gets less than 2 percent of the funding of other, more mainstream diseases like cancer.

To make up for this discrepancy, Karen Szumlinski, professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, has paired her research with that of more designer diseases in order to gain the necessary funding she and her team would otherwise have been denied.

Fortunately, her method worked, and in an article recently published in The Journal for Neuroscience, Szumlinski and her team have found a potential site for attempting a cure for cocaine addiction: the prefrontal cortex.

“The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is primarily implicated in making decisions and thus plays an important role in impulse control,” said Griffin Downing, a research assistant at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience.

Through her research, Szumlinski has definitively shown diminished activity in this part of the brain, implying an inability to control the urge to take more of the drug. This finding fights the notion that addicts are just weak-minded people. Rather, they are physiologically unable to stop themselves from doing the drug. The circuit in their brain that would tell them not to just isn’t firing.

Though she focused primarily on cocaine in her study, Szumlinski points to similar findings from a plethora of other research showing that the diminished function exists in addicts of many different abused substances.

“For me, it’s not even about having a good time anymore. I’ll drink even when I don’t want to. I just see the bottle and the next thing I know it’s in my hand,” said an anonymous student with a self-described alcohol addiction.

These feelings of helplessness may be alien to some, but for people with a real addiction, it can control their lives.

Furthermore, such research begs the age-old question: which came first? Are people with less activity in the prefrontal cortex more likely to become addicted, or is the drug really damaging the prefrontal cortex?

To answer this question, Szumlinski and her team are focusing on cocaine and turning to animal studies using rats as the model organism. By doing so, she hopes to be able to prove the drug’s role in shutting down the prefrontal cortex.

Despite whether the diminished functioning is a cause or a result of the addiction, as far as Szumlinski is concerned, the effects are not necessarily permanent. Though certain brain circuits may be damaged, she does not believe they are too far gone to potentially be rebooted.

“We rationalized that if we could identify behaviorally relevant changes in protein function within the prefrontal cortex, and [if] the protein was ‘druggable,’ then we might be able to reverse protein dysfunction and return behavior closer to that of a non-addicted brain,” Szumlinski said.

So the goal was clear: find something to reboot the damaged brain. And find something they did. Using medications already approved by the FDA, they were able to reactivate the prefrontal cortices of cocaine-addicted mice.

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. Because our society does not fully recognize addiction as a disease, health insurance companies have very limited coverage for such medications.

According to Szumlinski, a person can only obtain coverage for drugs related to ameliorating addiction for a maximum of three months, but addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder. Thus, such policies are ineffective for truly treating the disease and essentially only prolong the time until the next relapse.

In order for drug addiction to be truly treatable, at least through medication, substantial policy changes will need to be made to incorporate these new findings.

KYLE SCROGGINS can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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