It should come as no surprise to anyone that cocaine damages the brain, but recent studies have isolated the effect that it has on the DNA.
Cocaine is one of the most difficult of drugs to quit using, not least because frequent use of the drug causes lasting changes in parts of the brain responsible for motivation and reward based behaviors. Our treatment center has had some success treating cocaine addiction with special programs that can reach the person who is craving cocaine and crack.
Now, researchers say they’ve identified some of the genes that cocaine alters, and that in the future, medications that block these genes may make it easier for people to quit using the very addictive drug.
Cocaine Changes Genes in the Nucleus Accumbens
Cocaine causes changes in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that is related to reward (pleasure) and motivation, and these changes make it more difficult for a cocaine addicted person to abstain from use.
While scientists had long known of these alterations in the brain, they didn’t know how exactly these enduring changes occurred – until now.
Studying Cocaine Addiction at the Genome Level
Dr Eric Nestler, a researcher out of Mt. Sinai Medical School in New York led a team that investigated the effects of cocaine at the genome level in the nucleus accumbens.
The researchers repeatedly injected lab mice with cocaine, and using a powerful new molecular analysis technique, called ChIP-chip, observed what happened at the DNA level. They found that cocaine changed the structure of certain protein strands essential in RNA sequencing and they were also able to map out a range of genes that changed under cocaine exposure.
The scientists then focused on one of these cocaine affected gene groups, the sirtuins genes, which seem involved in the perpetuation of cocaine addiction through actions in the nucleus accumbens. When the researchers blocked the sirtuins genes, mice experienced less ‘reward’ from using cocaine are were less motivated to self administer the drug.
The researchers say that further research into the sirtuins and other genes altered by cocaine may result in medications that could make it easier for people to break free from cocaine addiction.