Research Highlights the Neurology of Addiction
> 7/6/2007 2:02:31 PM

In the ongoing search for preventative measures and effective treatment addressing drug addiction, researchers often focus on our central organ, that most directly affected by substance abuse. The chemical connectors in the brain see their functions warped by the presence of illicit substances, beginning with the usual euphoria and, over time, facilitating the decline into full-blown physical dependency and its many resulting disorders.

While common sense dictates that addiction is, by nature, a physical disease rather than a personal weakness or a sign of faulty character, the clinical validity of such sentiments has only recently been universally accepted by the scientific community. Unfortunately, many individuals still believe that true addiction requires moral, rather than medical, treatment. After repeated demonstrations of the long-term changes in brain chemistry engendered by drug use, researchers insist that addiction be considered a chronic physical affliction and that treatment (and health insurance) should be tailored accordingly. Leading the way in this new, expansive wing of research is Dr. Nora Volkow, who's worked for decades with imaging technologies in order to isolate the physical realities of addiction - determining who is most susceptible, discovering how the disease takes hold and changes the individual over time, and trying to find the most effective methods of treatment. Her latest work centers on the idea of hormone suppression to alleviate the effects of addiction.

Much of the current research revolves around devising a chemical cure for a chemical affliction - conditioning the brain in order to temper the highs that make the addict and relieve the unquenched cravings that follow. Approximately one year ago, researchers from the University of California released the results of a study that operated along similar lines in looking to find a chemical compound that might effectively suppress the pleasurable influence of various drugs and the chronic urges that define addiction. They supplied rats with regular doses cocaine and treated some with a compound that effectively blocks the release of a pleasure-inducing hormone called orexin. Predictably, the rats receiving the hormonal injections did not suffer from the same degree of neurological conditioning that usually follows the regular ingestion of such intoxicants. Researchers concluded that blocking the overproduction of these hormones prevented the drug from leaving its functional mark on the brain, essentially eliminating the crucial first stage of addiction - developing a taste and a tolerance for the drug in question. New research has also established that those predisposed to drug addiction often exhibit less neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain controlling the instinctual response behaviors. These individuals are seemingly unable to reconcile their desire for pleasure-inducing hormones with the cognitive knowledge that such actions have dire consequences. Those displaying these tendencies also had more difficulty completing analytical exercises or adjusting to newly established rules of behavior. This research even further advances the idea that drug addiction both affects and results from certain chemical propensities within the brain.

The newest approach to such behavioral problems has been to carefully monitor the dopamine receptor system (which controls the presence and quantity of natural stimulants in the brain and body) and attempt to respond to the overactive hormonal equation so often associated with drug addiction with effective chemical remedies. Again using cocaine as the test substance, pharmaceutical researchers have demonstrated that muting the dopamine receptors curtailed both the dramatic highs resulting from these drugs and the chance that they would negatively effect the nervous system in which they stimulated such overactivity. In certain individuals, the brain seems to possess a smaller amount of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, a substance that helps the body to realize instinctually that it has been saturated by a given chemical. By using a common epilepsy medication to boost GABA levels, researchers again reduced the extremities of drug-induced highs and their residual effects (dependency, withdrawal, erratic behavior, etc).

If such research continues, we may within the next two decades see one or more prescription drugs with the power to prevent the onset of addiction or relieve its established presence. Will such developments lead more individuals to try illicit substances with a seriously diminished sense of repercussions? Will it limit the effects of such drugs, reducing their appeal and rendering them all but obsolete? Will responsible parties then feel the need to develop ever-more intense designer drugs to overcome our clinical mastery of addiction? At the moment, we can only rhetorically consider what will most likely become crucially relevant issues. But we can be encouraged by the scientific community's rapidly growing knowledge of the ways in which drugs work their sinister magic and their pursuit of the most effective response mechanisms. If we can prevent or eliminate the ravages of addiction in only a small portion of the population, the subsequently agonized waiting period will be well justified.

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