Addiction is not a pretty thing, especially when it’s to cocaine. To quote comedian Dave Chappelle (in a parody of Rick James), it’s “a hell of a drug.” Setting comedy aside, though, cocaine addiction is considered a major public health problem in the United States. However, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco (UCSF) have shown that addiction to cocaine can be wiped away in rats by stimulating their brains with laser light.
The recently-published study looked at the role that the prefrontal cortex of the brain plays in cocaine addiction. This part of the brain is thought to control impulses and decision making. The tests on the rats used a technique called optogenics — a form of genetic engineering that inserts light-sensitive proteins into nerve cells. This can shut activity in the brain off and on. The researchers learned that turning on the activity in that part of the brain wiped out addictive behavior. But the technique worked both ways: turning the activity off in the brain turned non-addicted rats into addicted ones.
An estimated 1.4 million Americans are reported to be addicted to cocaine. Addiction to the drug is one of the top causes of heart attacks and strokes for people under 35. One of the effects of cocaine use is that it causes compulsive abuse due to its highly addictive nature.
In addition to the toll that cocaine plays on health, it also has a major impact on crime, imprisonment, treatment and prevention programs, and job productivity. Wiping out addiction could have both major health and economic impacts.
Human clinical trials are expected to begin soon, but obviously, doctors cannot aim lasers at their patients’ brains. However, there is already a similar procedure currently being used to treat symptoms of depression. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) induces activation of the prelimbic cortex by applying an external electromagnetic field to the brain.