Can Illuminating Neurons Treat Opioid Addiction and Affect Drug Policy?

By Jonita Davis 09/29/17

The news of the brain’s connection to addiction is already helping local lawmakers better understand the need to attack the situation like they would a diabetes or leukemia epidemic.

Doctors discussing brain scan results
In the constant effort to integrate scientific approaches with drug treatment policy, Optogenetics might be the future.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a groundbreaking report on addiction last year which showed that America is in the midst of a public health crisis related to drugs and alcohol. The report indicated that addiction, as a chronic brain illness, is highly treatable – but that fewer than 10 percent of people with substance problems actually seek treatment.

-Ryan Hampton for The Hill

These and other edicts have been shared amongst agencies of the Trump Administration since they took office. The opioid epidemic has been plaguing the US for quite some time, forcing the CDC to issue several reports and national announcements on the topic. Despite the abundance of information on opioid addiction and its health implications, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently declared a “War on Drugs,” specifically aimed at opioids. Fortunately, researchers have pressed on in finding ways to treat addiction. The latest development in the field, optogenetic therapy to erase the “adverse rewards” of addiction, not only proves to be a breakthrough in recovery science, but also offers more concrete proof that drug addiction is a brain disorder that can be cured.


What Do You Mean, “Adverse Rewards” of Addiction?

Everyone knows that the reward of drug use is the high, that feeling of euphoria that users get from the drug. Researchers at Stanford University, a team led by Dr. Xiaoke Chen, found that chronic addiction is not only fueled by the need to continue the high, it is also heavily motivated by the need to avoid withdrawal symptoms. With opioids, the withdrawal is extreme, including flu-like symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle aches, and also anxiety and depression. For chronic opioid users, these symptoms are enough to fuel the craving for the drug.

So How Does that Work in the Brain?

These same researchers have pinpointed the place in the brain where the pain and reward seems to have the most effect: a group of neurons located deep in the brain that respond the most to the negative effects of addiction. This group of neurons is located in the thalamus, a small, round pebble-shaped part of the brain situated at the end of the brain stem. The neurons send messages along a pathway to the nucleus accumbens. Researchers found that this pathway gets stronger in chronic drug users, and that strong path ensures that negative effects of addiction keep the user taking drugs. As long as that path is strong and open, the person feels compelled to continue using to avoid withdrawal.

What’s Optogenetics and How Can It Help People with Addiction?

Think about how the human eye works. Stanford News describes the process that occurs when “light-sensitive molecules convert photons into electric signals.” This is exactly what happens in optogenetics. Those molecules are sent into that strong pathway from the thalamus and become electric signals that weaken the pathway. In doing so, the optogenetics work to erase or at least greatly ease the craving for drugs in the chronic addict. This technique was developed by Dr. Karl Diesseroth of Stanford University and has been successful in treating morphine-addicted mice. Diesseroth found that if the mice were treated appropriately, they could kick the morphine habit easily without feeling the need to use again to fend off the pain of withdrawal.

How Does This All Affect Laws and Policy?

Many localities around the country are treating addiction as a public health concern. Programs such as PAATH or Public Safety Assisted Access to Treatment and Health, are allowing people with substance use disorders to turn themselves and their drug paraphernalia in to police, paramedics, and fire departments. In exchange, the public safety officers call an addiction specialist or social worker to interview the person and get them immediate entry into a rehabilitation program. Another more widely spread program arms public safety workers with Narcan (naloxone) in an injectable form to immediately administer in the event of an overdose. These programs and many others are focused on putting the health of the addict before the crimes of drug use and possession.

Despite the need for more of these programs, other areas of the country are using law enforcement to crack down on heroin possession and distribution. Unfortunately, the places cracking down are the places that have the highest need for a health intervention. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia had the highest overdose rate in 2013, with 32 deaths per 100,000 caused by drug overdose. The state also had the highest percentage of drug prison sentences in the same year with a 60 percent drug sentencing rate, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. The news for that year is peppered with arrests and convictions for illegal opioid painkillers in addition to heroin-related arrests.

It is now more obvious than ever to local lawmakers dealing with the situation on the ground that criminalizing the condition is not helping anyone. Two years after they began the “crackdown” on opioids, West Virginia still topped the CDC charts for overdose deaths. That rate rose to 41 deaths per 100,000 caused drug overdose. It is painfully obvious that jail is not the answer.

Fortunately, researchers on drug addiction continue working toward an answer for the epidemic plaguing our country. They may be able to soon change lawmaker minds with more research on promising treatments like optogenetics which appears to erase the damage of chronic use on the adverse reward parts of the brain. The news of the brain’s connection to addiction is already helping local lawmakers better understand the need to attack the situation like they would a diabetes or leukemia epidemic. It’s already happening with the Narcan, PAATH, and similar programs. Now communities need a strong evidence-based treatment that they can offer the addicted population before an overdose occurs. Maybe optogenetics is that treatment.

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Jonita Davis is a writer, avid reader, and writing instructor based on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Redbook, and Romper. Follow her on Twitter at @SurviTeensNtots or check out her website