What if Cocaine Didn’t Work?

Drug abuse prevention may become about blocking the reward center in the brain

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) In 2008, cocaine abuse was responsible for 482,188 ER visits in the U.S. alone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration claims 1.5 million Americans over the age of 12 used cocaine in 2010.

New research focuses on the specific brain triggers in the reward center that are linked to cocaine addiction. This direction of study may lead discovery for addiction treatment drugs and vaccines in the future.

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Dr. Eric Nestler MD., PhD., Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience, Chairman of the Neuroscience and Director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is the senior researcher for this study that is looking at how the brain processes cocaine.

When cocaine is absorbed in the brain the activity of a protein named Rac1 is decreased. Rac1 helps the brain’s reward center function normally. When normal function lessens due to cocaine use, more cocaine is required to activate the reward center.

Thus addiction to cocaine becomes part of trying to get the brain’s reward center to function like it did before cocaine was introduced into the mix.

Dr. Nestler led a team to first do a study on mice, but the same protein they are looking at exists in other mammals including humans. Their goal is to see exactly how Rac1 reacts to cocaine and how to block cocaine from effecting the reward center in the brain.

Dr. Nestler says, “The research gives us new information on how cocaine affects the brain’s reward center and how it could potentially be repaired.”

“There are virtually no medication regimens for cocaine addiction, only psychotherapy, and some early work with vaccines,” According to Dr. Nestler. If scientists fully understand how cocaine addiction works in the brain then there could be a possibility of designing a medication to help cocaine addicts.

If a medication prevents cocaine from having any reward on the brain, in theory, people wouldn’t waste their time doing cocaine.

The next step will be isolating Rac1 in other mammals and humans to understand it further. After that to then see if blocking or enhancing production of Rac1 with pharmaceuticals will change cocaine addiction. 

This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, April 2012. Funding for the project was provided by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health, no conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 24, 2012
Last Updated:
May 7, 2012