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Scientists Make Advances in Pill to Cure Cocaine Addiction

By studying synapses in rat brains, researchers may have found the key to eliminating cravings for cocaine.

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Photo via Shutterstock

By Shawn Dwyer

12/27/13

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A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience has uncovered a method that could biologically manipulate neurocircuits related to addiction and prevent them from sending craving signals to the rest of the brain.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led by study author and assistant professor Yan Dong examined nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens region of rat brains. The region has usually been identified with reward, emotion, motivation, and addiction. Dong and his team looked specifically at how synapses relay signals when individuals use cocaine. When someone does cocaine, so-called silent synapses are created. These synapses are immature and send weak signals, but suddenly mature when a user stops using cocaine. The mature synapses then start firing off craving signals.

But the researchers found that they could reverse the maturation process by removing a chemical receptor known as CP-AMPAR. "Reversing the maturation process prevents the intensification process of cocaine craving," said Dong. When the receptor was removed, the synapse reverted back to its silent state and was thus unable to send a craving signal. That discovery has given rise to the hope for a pharmacological solution that could replicate their test results. “We are now developing strategies to maintain the 'reversal' effects. Our goal is to develop biological and pharmacological strategies to produce long-lasting de-maturation of cocaine-generated silent synapses," Dong said.

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