The idea of treating drug abuse with more drugs is controversial but many believe that a pharmaceutical approach to addiction could help to decrease the likeliness of relapse. Now, a recent study from the University of Buffalo may bring us a step closer to making drugs to treat cocaine addiction a reality after uncovering a previously unknown neural pathway, which regulates a person's likeliness to relapse.

For many chronic cocaine users, addiction is a lifetime affliction and relapse remains a possibility even after many years of abstinence. Part of the reason why cocaine addiction is so hard to break lies in the drugs ability to physically change the makeup of the brain. However, according to Amy Gancarz, lead author of the UB study, understanding these changes is necessary to developing treatments that fight drug cravings and relapse. 

“There are changes in the brain caused by drug use that occur and persist, but are only unmasked after withdrawal from a drug — in this case, cocaine," senior author David Dietz explained in the press release. "Cocaine use alters the connections between certain neurons through changes in the shape of the cells."

For their study, the team focused specifically on how brain receptors known as Activin receptors responded to drug stimuli. The Activin receptors were chosen as the focus for this study due to their involvement in the brain’s drive for pleasure and reward. As reported in the press release, the team found that when they manipulated Activin receptors in the brains of lab mice, they were able to increase or decrease cocaine use and relapse behavior in the animal models.

The link between Activin receptors and cocaine use behavior is not completely understood but the team believes the receptor's pathways may control the expression of certain genes, which in turn prevents cocaine from altering neural connections.

"Understanding this critical pathway will help us pursue new directions in potential pharmacological and gene therapies to prevent drug relapses," Dietz said. "If we can control this pathway, we may be able to help prevent relapses in people who have been abstinent from cocaine."

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system that increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates pleasure and movement in the brain's circuits. When used repeatedly cocaine, can cause excessive amounts of dopamine to build up in the brain’s synapses. This both amplifies dopamine’s signal and disrupts normal brain communications — hence the characteristic cocaine high.

Using drugs to treat addiction is by far not a new idea. Current pharmaceutical approaches are often used to help suppress withdrawal symptoms, making the process a little easier. When it comes to opioid addicts, for example, methoadone is used to both prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce craving, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. There are also medications to help lessen alcohol withdrawal and the desire to drink.

Source: Gancarz AM, Wang Z, Dietz DM, et al. Activin receptor signaling regulates cocaine-primed behavioral and morphological plasticity. Nature Neuroscience. 2015