Cocaine Research: Cocaine Rapidly Changes the Brain, and Cocaine Addiction Related to the Dark Side of the Brain but May Be Cured by Ritalin
We know, thanks to people like Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and to educational efforts like the HBO series on Addiction, that drugs affect the brain in ways that change it.
But now, as reported on BBC News, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco are saying that coke changes the brain within hours “in what could be the first steps of drug addiction.”
In an experiment with mice, researchers looked for dendritic spines emanating from the rodents’ brain cells. Dendritic spines are “implicated in memory formation.” Because where drugs are taken are important, according to the scientists, they let the mice explore two different chambers or environments, and after the mice had selected one, they were injected with cocaine in the other.
Since more dendrites were formed with the cocaine than when the mice were injected with a placebo, the experiment suggested that new memories were “being formed around drug use.” In turn, scientists said they gained a “solid understanding of how addiction occurs – it shows us how addiction is learned by the brain.”
Unfortunately, the researchers concluded that at this time, “it is not immediately apparent how useful this would be in developing a therapy.” Every baby step helps.
Cocaine Addiction Related to the Dark Side of the Brain
Also in June, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute uncovered what they believe is a part of the brain that’s a good target for therapy. It’s an emotion-related area, involving feelings of “malaise and unhappiness.” When rats were exposed to cocaine, they found that the drug caused changes in their brains that contributed to anxiety and “other unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal.” But when the researchers were able to block the relevant receptors, “the rats’ signs of addiction abated.” The receptors’ location is the target for therapy.
This research is also important because it’s different from the traditional approach involving the pleasure-seeking motivation of the early stages of addiction. The scientists referred to changes in the negative motivation—wanting to alleviate the “dysphoria of drug withdrawal.”
Even as this research was being finalized, cocaine was still big business in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Falmouth, Maine, the DEA arrested two people in “one of the largest cocaine seizures in recent memory.” During Memorial Day weekend, customs and border officials seized cocaine worth more than $500 million from speedboats in two locations: north of the Galapagos Islands, and near the Panamanian-Colombian border.
Users hit the news, too (of course). In May, an ex-Judge in Pennsylvania was charged with stealing cocaine from evidence envelopes. One news commentator intimated that he had been snorting it. Also in May, cocaine was found in over 30 percent of the 50 lakes tested in Minnesota. Go figure. How in the world did it get into so many lakes?
Science works in funny ways. Then again, so do our brains. And the behavior of people on drugs never fails to amaze.
Cocaine Addiction May be Cured by Ritalin?
I suppose the article that appeared on the CBS News site in June makes perfect sense. If cocaine is a stimulant, then perhaps it’s understandable, in a weird way, for researchers to have found that “methylphenidate, a stimulant drug prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can normalize the pathways” or block the sensation of getting high, from cocaine. As one of the lead researchers explained it, the medication may boost the brain’s control over the automatic, impaired responses that may lead a user to compulsively seek a drug.
Cocaine isn’t the most widely used drug, the article said, but it’s dangerous, sending hundreds of thousands to the emergency room in 2009 alone, so you might think that this news would have been heralded more than it was. But later in the article is the caveat—researchers still need to see whether the effects “can be sustained long-term” since previous studies indicated that results were inconsistent. They posit that the best results might be obtained by using the ADHD medication with therapy.
But they remain optimistic, hoping the medication can help with other addictive drugs as well.