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October 9, 2018

How a New Scientific Discovery Is Leading to New Treatments for Addiction and Other Mental Health Problems

Chalkboard with arrowsLast month researchers at Rutgers University cracked a code in their effort to demystify how addiction affects the brain, and their discovery may lead to more new medications for cocaine and other addictions and co-occurring mental health problems.

The researchers were studying cocaine-addicted rats when they made the following groundbreaking observation: that cocaine use caused a long-lasting increase in the number of neurons (brain cells) that produce a neurotransmitter (or chemical messenger) known as “orexin.” Orexin is produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, and heavily influences the regulation of your sleep and appetite functions.

The Role of Orexin in Cocaine Addiction and Other Mental Health Issues

But here is where the science holds promise for people with cocaine and other addictions and co-occurring disorders, such as eating disorders: when the scientists restored the number of orexin neurons to normal or blocked orexin signaling in the brain, the rats’ cocaine addiction went away. In other words, higher-than-normal levels of orexin correlated with cocaine addiction, while balanced, healthy levels of orexin correlated with an absence of cocaine addiction.

These findings were more pronounced with respect to binge-like, intermittent cocaine use, as opposed to continuous cocaine use at regular intervals throughout the day. The researchers explained that binge-like, intermittent cocaine use more closely resembles what cocaine addiction in human beings looks like. And, as the researchers expected, the rats that were administered intermittent cocaine exhibited the same behaviors that often describe cocaine-addicted people:

  • Drug-seeking and greater motivation to get the drug
  • Depression and anxiety-like behaviors
  • Relapse after a time of abstinence

Here is how the study’s senior author, Dr. Gary Aston-Jones, explained the findings in a press release:

The addicted brain appears to become more dependent upon this increased number of orexin neurons. Lower doses of an orexin blocker were more effective at decreasing addiction behaviors in these rats than in those with shorter access to cocaine and that were less addicted.

What This Means for People Struggling with Addiction and Other Mental Health Conditions

The potential implications of this latest discovery may be nothing short of revolutionary for people who struggle with cocaine and other addictions and co-occurring mental health problems.

We have long known that addiction is a complex brain disease. Even so, much of the research into how addiction impacts the brain has centered primarily around one neurotransmitter in particular, dopamine— this potentially at the expense of understanding how other neurotransmitters may play a role in the onset of addiction and its treatment.

In the same press release, another of the Rutgers researchers, Dr. John Krystal, MD, the editor of Biological Psychiatry, described the same principle this way:

Viewing addiction as mediated by a single neurotransmitter in a single brain region is not only inaccurate, but it prevents us from harnessing the complexity of brain signaling mechanisms in the process of developing treatments for addiction.

Dr. Krystal said that “a growing array of drugs targeting orexin signaling” signifies an opportunity to test how similar orexin-targeting medications may be used to treat addiction.

This should be good news not just for people struggling with cocaine but other substances and mental health conditions as well.

Currently, new medications targeting orexin to treat insomnia and eating disorders— (two conditions that can often co-occur with substance use disorders)—are in development. In fact, one such medication is already available: “Belsomra,” a sleep medication that is the first in its class of orexin-targeting drugs.

The takeaway: that at a time when advances in addiction science are happening faster than ever before, anyone struggling with cocaine or another addiction— or, a condition like insomnia or an eating disorder, both of which can make you more vulnerable to addiction)—has just one more good reason to seek treatment today.

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