Study Explores Cocaine Abuse Medication in Treatment Setting

By John Lavitt 11/03/14

European researchers learned that the lower the impulse control, the greater the chance at reducing cocaine consumption.

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In a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, a team of French and British researchers used laboratory experiments on rats to explore the relative effectiveness of a substance treatment medication in different stages of addiction-related neurological changes.

People affected by substance abuse disorders experience definitive shifts in the production of the pleasure-producing brain chemical called dopamine. Researchers concluded that the effects of substance abuse medications would vary significantly depending on the stage of addiction of the patient being treated.

Since heroin and cocaine lead to an extreme spike in dopamine levels that resembles pleasure production on steroids, normal dopamine levels no longer are enough to affect addicts in early stages of recovery. Such a lack of pleasure explains the blah feeling that is so often a complaint of people in early recovery.

After experiencing an extended period of the intense dopamine high produced by drugs, addicts feel a loss as the normative amounts of dopamine circulating in the brain’s pleasure center has little or no affect. Such an effect makes perfect sense since the intense euphoria of the substance abuse high is much more intense than pleasure associated with everyday activities like eating tasty foods, enjoying hobbies, or even having sex.

In the study, researchers from the University of Aix-Marseilles and the University of Cambridge used laboratory experiments on rats to explore the brain reactions to alpha-flupenthixol, a proposed substance abuse treatment medication for cocaine addiction. Some of the rats in the experiments were in relatively early stages of cocaine addiction, displaying little or no impulsive behavior. Other rats were further along in the addiction process with obvious cravings brought on by full-blown addiction.

After being trained to administer cocaine on their own, the rats received doses of the anti-addiction medication. Most of the rats reduced the amount of cocaine they consumed, but the response to the medication depended on the stage of addiction. Rats farther down the addiction scale had a lesser chance of substantially reducing their cocaine intake. In contrast, rats with relatively low levels of impulsive behavior had a greater chance of curbing their cocaine use. Surprisingly, however, the study showed that rats in the earliest stages of cocaine usage did not respond well to the treatment and continued to be drawn to the novel stimulation of the cocaine.

Such a strange finding suggests that the substance treatment medication has a window of effectiveness that first opens up when an individual has advanced at least somewhat down the path of addiction-related brain change, but decreases as the advancement continues to extreme stages. However, if cocaine usage has yet to affect the brain’s dopamine chemistry, addiction medication will have little or no effect. The study implies that the addiction process needs to have been triggered for addiction medications to have an effect.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.