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Can Lasers Zap Away Addiction?

Scientists use lasers to "turn off" cocaine addiction in rats' brains. Will it work on humans?

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By Valerie Tejeda

04/04/13

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Scientists have found they can zap away cocaine addiction with lasers, although so far only in rats. By inhibiting neural activity, scientists were able to switch addictive impulses off—and on—with laser lights aimed at the prefrontal cortex of the rats' brains. "When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone," says Antonello Bonci, MD, UCSF, in a press release. The results of the new study, published in the journal Nature, are the first to prove the link between activity in a certain region of the brain, and addictive behavior. "This is the first study to show a cause-and-effect relationship between cocaine-induced brain deficits in the prefrontal cortex and compulsive cocaine-seeking," says lead study author Billy Chen, PhD, author from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "These results provide evidence for a cocaine-induced deficit within a brain region that is involved in disorders characterized by poor impulse control, including addiction." As of now, the lasers have only been tested on rats, but scientists are planning for human trials which will use electromagnetic stimulation—instead of lasers—on the brain. They hope to achieve the same results. "This exciting study offers a new direction of research for the treatment of cocaine and possibly other addictions," says NIDA director Nora D. Volkow, MD. "We already knew, mainly from human brain imaging studies, that deficits in the prefrontal cortex are involved in drug addiction. Now that we have learned how fundamental these deficits are, we feel more confident than ever about the therapeutic promise of targeting that part of the brain."

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