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NIDA Short Illustrates 'Why People Lose Control Over Their Cocaine Use'

By John Lavitt 10/11/16

A new NIDA animation provides a clear picture of how initial cocaine use can develop into a full-blown addiction.

NIDA Short Illustrates 'Why People Lose Control Over Their Cocaine Use'

In a new animated short funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), government researchers do their best to explain why people lose control over their cocaine use. By monitoring the activity of two types of neurons in the brains of mice that play a role in animal behavior, the researchers hoped to uncover insight into human behavior.

The first type of neuron is the "urge" neuron that promotes uninhibited feelings of reward, which results in the repetition of behaviors that produce such rewards. The second type of neuron is the "control" neuron that reduces urges, thus inhibiting out-of-control behaviors like addiction in all its many forms.

Although both urge and control neurons can be found in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, they activate different brain pathways, thus having opposite effects upon activation: Imagine a two-lane highway with the urges going one way and the controls headed in the opposite direction.

By adding cocaine to the mix and revving up the dopamine levels in the brain, the balance between the two neurons are drastically shifted in favor of the urge neurons. If their activity levels previously reflected an old jalopy, suddenly they became a race car with engines fueled and the pedal to the metal. Meanwhile, the control neurons just keep sputtering along as before.

Cocaine not only altered the power of the urges, but also often increased the duration of the effect over time. When mice received the drug for the first time, the race car lasted only a few laps until it slowed down and became a jalopy again. After 25 minutes, the urge neurons leveled off, returning the urge/control ratio to its pre-cocaine levels. In contrast, after repetitive use of the drug, the urge neurons continued to predominate for much longer and the race car kept the mice wanting more and more for longer periods of time.

Researchers believe this pattern reflects the same dynamic that happens in human beings when they take cocaine. Although usage may be episodic in the early stages, it quickly gives way to more powerful urges that lead right down the road to prolonged abuse and addiction.

The animation by the NIDA researchers provides a clear picture of how initial and even episodic cocaine use can explode into full-blown addiction. Once the urge neurons are given the power, they hold onto it for longer and longer periods, ultimately doing more and more damage to the individual and potentially the community around him or her.

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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.

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