Could Diabetes Medication Help Prevent Cocaine Relapse?

By Beth Leipholtz 05/02/18

A new study examined the medication's effect on cocaine-seeking behaviors. 

Scientists examining petri dish in the laboratory

An existing medication could prove to be helpful in preventing cocaine relapses, a new study has found. 

According to Medical News Today, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have discovered that a medication intended to treat diabetes—called exendin-4—“decreased cocaine-seeking behavior in addicted rats during withdrawal.”

Based on a 2014 survey, about 913,000 cocaine users in the U.S. fall into the category of dependence or abuse. For such individuals trying to overcome substance use disorder, 40 to 60% relapse.

Authors of the study say that despite the fact that cocaine relapse is a "significant public health concern,” there are not any effective treatments for it.

Heath D. Schmidt, senior study author and a research assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, says scientists aim to use animals to determine what medications could work as a treatment. 

"Our goal as basic scientists is to use animal models of relapse to identify novel medications to treat cocaine addiction,” she wrote. 

Exendin 4 works by imitating a hormone that decreases blood sugar and food intake. It is approved to treat type 2 diabetes as well as obesity, and is even being tested as a potential treatment for Alzheimer's.

“The drug belongs to a class called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists,” Medical News Today notes. “These drugs work by stimulating GLP-1 receptors, which are particular signal-receiving proteins that are present in the brain and the gut.”

In studying the effect of the medication on rats, the researchers stated they found a previously unknown role for GLP-1 receptors. 

The study was conducted in different stages. First, researchers tested blood from rats that had been on cocaine for 21 days, which showed a reduced level of the GLP-1 hormone. 

This led researchers to wonder whether this hormone could affect cocaine-seeking behaviors. So, after three weeks of allowing the rats to ingest cocaine at their own accord, with certain cues such as a light coming on when a lever was pressed, the researchers created a withdrawal period by replacing cocaine with saline solution.  

During the period of withdrawal, “cocaine-seeking behavior reduced significantly from the 28 self-administered daily doses of the early phase.”

The researchers then reintroduced drug-seeking behavior by bringing back cocaine or leaving saline but bringing back the cues such as light. The rats returned to both behaviors, researchers say. 

The researchers then carried out the same procedure, but with rats that had already been treated with exendin 4. In this situation, Medical News Today states, the researchers found that drug-seeking behaviors during the withdrawal period were reduced. 

The team was also able to determine the exact molecular pathway the GLP-1 receptor used to increase signaling.

"We've shown for the first time that central GLP-1 signaling plays an important role in cocaine-seeking," Schmidt wrote. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.