Cocaine abuse is a serious health issues estimated to affect around 913,000 Americans, but a new study has suggested a potential way to curb cocaine abuse in addicts. The research found that the hypocretin/orexin (HCRT) system of the brain, which is traditionally known for promoting wakefulness and appetite, may also be related to cravings for cocaine.
The team suggest that blocking hypocretin signaling via a receptor might reduce an addict's desire for the drug, thus helping them break their cycle of addiction.
The study, published online in Biological Psychiatry, looked at rats to investigate the link between this brain system and addiction. The team noted that rats who were allowed to give themselves cocaine over the long-term, as to mirror human drug abuse, took less cocaine when the hypocretin signaling was blocked throughout the brain. The same effect was not seen in rats' short-term access to cocaine. These results suggest that HCRT neurotransmission in the central amygdala — a brain region associated with experiencing emotions — is a key contributor to cocaine abuse, according to a news release.
"The more that we learn about the brain, the more that we learn that brain signaling mechanisms that play a particular defined function, such as a role in wakefulness or appetite, often play important roles in other functions, such as addiction," said professor John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, who was not involved in this study, in the press release.
The hypocretin/orexin system is related to sleep and appetite and associated with human behaviors such as sleep disorders. For example, according to a 2016 study, most of what we currently know about this neurological system came from studying narcolepsy, a disorder in which individuals are unable to regulate wakefulness.
Finding a way to better help addicts control their cravings is an important feat as cocaine abuse can have serious, sometimes deadly, effects on users' overall health. For example, according to Drug Abuse, users are in danger of inflammation of the heart muscle, rupture of the major artery leading from the heart, and severe reductions in heart function over time. Long-term cocaine abuse can also increase the risk of stroke or brain damage as a result of disruptions of the blood supply to the brain.
Based on this new information regarding the role of the hypocretin/orexin system, the team hope to use these findings to perhaps create a drug that would target hypocretin receptors to curb cocaine abuse.
Source: Schmeichel BE, Herman MA, Roberto M, Koob GF. Hypocretin Neurotransmission Within the Central Amygdala Mediates Escalated Cocaine Self-administration and Stress-Induced Reinstatement in Rats. Biological Psychiatry . 2017