NIDA Study Finds Substance that Inhibits Cocaine Reward Reaction

By John Lavitt 02/22/16

The study could play a major factor in developing new treatments for cocaine addiction.

NIDA Study Discovers Protein That Diminishes Cocaine Reward in Animals
Photo via Shutterstock

A National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded study has discovered a protein that reduces the natural cocaine reward reaction and cocaine-related learning in animals. Naturally present in the brain, the protein seemed to reduce the attraction of laboratory animals to environments in which they have experienced cocaine’s effects. Incredible in nature, the recent findings could point the way to new treatments to help people overcome addiction to cocaine and perhaps to other drugs as well.

Dr. Collin Kreple, Dr. John Wemmie, and colleagues at the University of Iowa and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Iowa City, previously had showed that the protein, called acid-sensing ion channel 1A (ASIC1A), supports some types of learning and memory. In the new NIDA-supported study, the research team surprisingly discovered that ASIC1A exerts an opposite, inhibiting effect on cocaine-related learning and memory. 

Such contrasting effects suggest that medications that stimulate this protein in the brain might block the formation of powerful drug-context associations that promote cocaine use and relapse. At the same time, it is believed the same protein would actually help to keep intact or even improve other kinds of memory. Such contradictory findings truly surprised the scientists. 

Dr. Thomas Radman, Program Officer and Health Scientist Administrator at NIDA’s Integrative Neuroscience Branch, explained, “Sometimes when a hypothesis in not borne out as expected by the experiments, science is led to novel investigations that were impossible to foresee. In this case, findings regarding the importance of ASIC-dependent, currents in the NAc may yield new therapeutic strategies for the treatment of addiction.”

In the study, the researchers repeatedly exposed mice to cocaine in a distinctively marked test chamber. They gave the animals the choice to either hang out in that chamber or in another where they had not received cocaine. Both normal mice and mice genetically altered to lack the protein favored the party room where they had received cocaine. Such cocaine-influenced mice spent the majority of their time there, waiting to party again. The normal animals, however, exhibited this preference less markedly. To further establish the link between the protein and the change, the researchers injected the protein into the brains of the genetically altered mice. Once injected, these mice stopped hanging out in the party room, confirming the dampening effect of the protein on cocaine-seeking behavior.

The studies showed that the protein suppresses two important drivers of cocaine addiction and relapse: cocaine reinforcement and drug-association learning. By raising levels of the protein in normal animals, these positive side effects can be strengthened. The researchers believe this discovery could lead to revolutionary new treatments for cocaine addiction in the future.

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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.