Potential Treatment To Prevent Relapse Shows Promise

By Maggie Ethridge 06/15/18

Researchers only tested the treatment mechanism out on morphine though they are interested in seeing if it works on other drugs.

Scientists working in a lab

The journal Addiction Biology published research from scientists at the University of Bath which offers a new mechanism for preventing drug-addiction relapses.

According to Medical Xpress, the Bath scientists collaborated with colleagues from RenaSci and University of Surrey to use an animal model in order to study specific behaviors of rats and mice that sought out morphine after being exposed to environmental cues associated with the drug.

The scientists then withheld morphine from the rats and mice and then reintroduced the environmental cues. The rodents then lapsed into drug-seeking behaviors. The premise set, the scientists then tested the effect of a brain neurotransmitter blocker called acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine is crucial to the memory process. Using the blocker on a specific acetylcholine receptor on the rats and mice, the researchers observed that the blocker drug, called methyllycaconitine, or MLA, did not block the rodents from searching for morphine, but did prevent them from ingesting it.

Moving forward with that information, the researchers honed in on a part of the brain vital for memory, the ventral hippocampus. The venal hippocampus is linked with emotional memory, crucial in the functions of addiction and relapse.

Relapse is a pervasive reality for those with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. While studies present differing statistics on relapse rates, Science Daily reports that “the majority of addicts return to drug-taking within 12 months of quitting.”

Triggers for relapse are numerous and range from physical cues such as drug paraphernalia to emotional cues such as a painful setback. The study shows that MLA—at least in animal models—works to prevent relapsing even when exposed to those environmental cues.

Medical Xpress quotes Professor Sue Wonnacott, from the University of Bath's Department of Biology & Biochemistry, as saying, "More work needs to be done to uncover the brain mechanisms involved, but it raises the prospect of erasing long-term drug-associated memories that underpin addiction and the propensity to relapse."

Dr. Chris Bailey from the University of Bath's Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology looked forward to more research which could reveal if MLA blocks relapse for other drug addictions besides morphine.

He said, "We already have evidence, in the same animal model, that it is effective against the more potent opioid, heroin. If MLA has similar effects against other drugs of abuse such as cocaine it would be even more encouraging."

Research is being done on relapse prevention using other methods for other drugs, as well.

This year, a promising study published in Neuropsychopharmapsychology (also done on animals), found that they were able to reduce relapse rates with a drug used to treat diabetes and obesity, called extendin-4. No adverse reactions were found, and research continues to move forward.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.