According to a study conducted by the University of Cambridge, cocaine abusers are unable to control their dependence to the drug due to a ‘backdoor’ in their brain that bypasses their self-control and taps into their habitual impulses.
In a press release from the University, Dr. David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the university explained:
“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’. In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”
More About the Study
University of Cambridge researchers used rats to test the effects of prolonged cocaine use and the relapse rates after quitting. Dr Belin and Professor Barry Everitt analyzed the brains of rats that were allowed to self-administer cocaine and discovered an unknown backdoor where impulses ended up linking with habits.
A previous study by Professor Everitt had shown that extended use of cocaine triggered activity in the dorsolateral striatum, which is linked with habitual behavior. That study concluded that the rats no longer had any control over the decisions they made about seeking cocaine; it was happening automatically.
The researchers also decided to find out whether using a drug used to treat paracetamol overdoses – N-acetylcysteine – could help stop cocaine cravings. The drug had previously shown in rat studies that it prevents relapse. Unfortunately, it failed human trials. The interesting part, though, was that analysis showed that human test subjects refrained from taking cocaine later on.
Results of Both Studies
From the press release, the first study is published in the Nature Communications Journal and shows that the formerly unknown pathway in the brain links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum, bypassing the prefrontal cortex – a region which helps people analyze information and make decisions.
Dr. Belin said, “We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case. We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behavior.”
He further added, “Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”
The second study was published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal and showed that the N-acetylcysteine drug could be used to prevent relapse into cocaine use. The rats that were self-administering cocaine lost the motivation to do so.
Mickael Puaud from the Department of Pharmacology said, “A hallmark of addiction is that the user continues to take the drug even in the face of negative consequences – such as on their health, their family and friends, their job, and so on. Our study suggests that N-acetylcysteine, a drug that we know is well tolerated and safe, may help individuals who want to quit to do so.”
What These Studies Mean for Future Treatment
Both of these studies have yielded positive results that can help eradicate cocaine addiction. The first study will help doctors and other researchers to come up with targeted medication that solves the cocaine dependence once and for all.
The second study will give the research doctors an idea of the type of drug that can be created to tackle cocaine abuse and relapse.