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Fixing the Fix

  • Courtney Humphries
JANUARY 22, 2015

Medication-Free Treatments

Many Scientists believe that drugs’ effects are so widespread, that they are not the ideal way to treat problems in specific brain areas. Therefore, researchers are starting to explore other methods for stimulating the brain.

A study published in Nature in 2013, led by Antonello Bonci, MD, scientific director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, used optogenetics to test whether stimulating the prefrontal cortex might give rats more control over an addiction. His team studied rats that had learned to self-administer cocaine. As with humans, some rats kept using the drug even when it meant getting a mild electric shock. The researchers introduced a gene into the brains of the rats that produced light-sensitive proteins called rhodopsins in the prefrontal cortex allowing them to turn brain cells on and off. They found that stimulating the cells wiped out the compulsive behavior. In contrast, switching the cells off in those rats that had stopped taking cocaine after the shocks suddenly caused the animals to take the drug in spite of the negative consequences.

Optogenetics cannot be performed safely in humans. But Dr. Bonci says that another noninvasive approach called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) can stimulate specific brain areas in humans. The technique, which uses a magnetic field applied on the scalp to stimulate brain cells, has been used for several years to treat depression, though its effectiveness is still under study. If the technique proves effective, Dr. Bonci posits it could be modified to stimulate other brain areas that might be implicated in addiction.

As researchers look deeper into the neurobiology of addiction, they are finding connections between the brain circuits involved in substance abuse, compulsive gambling or sex, and eating disorders. “We’re beginning to think about addictive disorders as a more general phenomenon than abuse of one drug,” says Edythe London. “We’re thinking toward a unified concept of addictive disorders.” All of which should help address the problems that keep people from exercising the healthy choices they desperately want to make.

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