Washington, Feb. 19 (Reuters): Whether you smoke a cigarette or use cocaine, certain nerve endings in the brain are tweaked in the same way, which suggests there may be a universal way to treat addiction, US researchers said today.
In fact, alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, morphine and nicotine all make brain cells hypersensitive, a team at Stanford University in California reported.
“What we have identified is a single change caused by drugs of abuse with different molecular mechanisms,” said Dr Robert Malenka of Stanford University Medical Center, who led the study.
The affected brain cells are in a region of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, Malenka’s team reported in the February 20 issue of the journal Neuron.
Last year, Malenka and his colleagues gave cocaine to mice and found that glutamate, a chemical in the body, was stimulating neurons in the VTA to release dopamine, a key neurotransmitter or message-carrying chemical associated with movement.
The brain cells stayed super-sensitive to glutamate for as long as a week, they found.
In today’s study, they found the same is true for cocaine, morphine, amphetamines, nicotine and alcohol.
Stress caused similar changes, but other, non-addictive drugs that act on the brain did not.
This could help explain why stress can cause a relapse in addicts.
“When drug addicts who are in remission and are doing fine are subject to stress, they very often relapse,” he said.
The work could eventually lead to a universal drug to battle addiction, Malenka said.
“It’s just the beginning of the story, but given that it is happening in the VTA it is likely to lead someplace,” he said.
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