Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and University of California-San Francisco have found that stimulating a key part of the brain reduces compulsive cocaine-seeking and suggests the possibility of changing addictive behavior generally. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, discussed the study, and the significance of the findings in a blog post earlier this month:
The researchers studied rats that were chronically addicted to cocaine. Their need for the drug was so strong that they would ignore electric shocks in order to get a hit. But when those same rats received the laser light pulses, the light activated the [prelimbic area of the prefrontal cortex], causing electrical activity in that brain region to surge. Remarkably, the rat’s fear of the foot shock reappeared, and assisted in deterring cocaine seeking. On the other hand, when the team used a different optogenetics technique to reduce activity in this same brain region, rats that were previously deterred by the foot shocks became chronic cocaine junkies.
Clearly this same approach wouldn’t be used in humans. But it does suggest that boosting activity in the prefrontal cortex using methods like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which is already used to treat depression, might help.
This image shows optogenetic stimulation using laser pulses illuminating the prelimbic cortex. The channelrhodopsins used to create the photo were provided to researchers by Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD.
Previously: Better than the real thing: How drugs hot wire our brains’ reward circuitry, The brain’s control tower for pleasure and Addiction: All in the mind?
Photo by Billy Chen and Antonello Bonci