Researchers Have Found Key Brain Circuit Regulating Cocaine Addiction to Help Prevent Relapse

Addiction research has seen many breakthroughs down the years, from helping to prevent people from suffering in the first place, to new and improved methods to help people overcome and recover from it.

When it comes to cocaine abuse, there has been millions put into research in centres all around the world, to understand the reasoning behind the addiction, and find the best method of treatment.

And it now seems that researchers have made a major breakthrough that could help people through the recovery process and be less likely to relapse.

Why are people addicted to cocaine?

Cocaine addiction is a growing concern in a number of countries around the world. In the UK, there has been a significant rise in incidents involving the abuse of the substance, while cocaine abuse around the world is rife, with the industry itself estimated to be worth around $130billion.

The addiction element of cocaine comes from the release of dopamine into a brain structure known as the nucleus accumbens. Very little was known about the dopamine release and how it could provide the vital factor to cocaine abuse treatment, but that has all changed thanks to research at the University of California.

The big discovery

Kevin Beier, Ph.D., led the study at the university and published his findings in a paper called Cell Reports. What it found was that there’s a specific circuit within the brain that controls the part of ourselves that becomes addicted to cocaine.

What ultimately provides the addiction, is the anxiety that is drawn out from withdrawing from the drug, thus pushing people into a cycle of usage and dependency. However, within that circuit, they also find a behaviour called “reinstatement”, which is the crucial part that could help people within the recovery process.

“Reinstatement” is effectively the urge and cravings people suffer from during cocaine withdrawal and often leads to people relapsing and taking the drug once again. This is a major breakthrough and by identifying this Dr Beier and the team at the university were able to undertake a series of experiments to effectively understand what is required to break that circuit when it comes to cocaine usage.

The team looked to create a more “nuanced picture” of how midbrain dopamine cells contribute to the brain’s behaviour and using rodent models, they were were able to trace an extended circuit from  the BNST in the midbrain, to the VTA, another structure within it, which then passes through to the amygdala.

Ultimately, this found that the neurons released from the BNST release a neurotransmitter known as GABA, which then transfer as dopamine neurons in the VTA and on to the amygdala. This then leads to the “reinstatement” found.

The aim is now to discover how this circuit can be targeted to reduce the negative effects of withdrawal and improve the process for patients who are suffering from relapses and extreme cravings during withdrawal. The development of therapeutic agents to target that circuit will now be a core focus around cocaine addiction, which could help aid recovery for millions of people, and save millions of lives for years to come.