Specific protein triggers changes in neurons in brain reward center linked to cocaine addiction

Investigators were also able to block the ability of repeated cocaine exposure, to induce addiction. The findings, published online April 22 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, provide the first evidence of how cocaine changes the shape and size of neuron rewards in a mouse model.

Repeated exposure to cocaine decreases the expression of a protein necessary for normal functioning of the brain's reward system, thus enhancing the reward for cocaine use and stimulating addiction. Using the protein's light-activated form in real time, in a technique known as optogenetics, investigators were also able to block repeated cocaine exposure from enhancing the brain's reward center from cocaine. Even though the results are very early and many steps will be important in moving from mice to humans, the researchers say that the finding opens the door to a new direction for treatment for cocaine addiction.

“There are virtually no medication regimens for cocaine addiction, only psychotherapy, and some early work with vaccines,” said the study's senior investigator, Eric Nestler, MD, PhD, Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience, Chairman of the Neuroscience and Director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The protein, Rac1, is found in many cells in mice, rats, monkeys, and humans, and it is known to be involved in controlling the growth of nerve cells.

Investigators “knocked out,” or deleted, the gene responsible for Rac1 production, or injected a virus to enhance expression of Rac1.

“The research gives us new information on how cocaine affects the brain's reward center and how it could potentially be repaired,” said Dr. Nestler. “This is the first case in the brain in vivo where it's been possible to control the activity of a protein, inside nerve cells in real time. Our findings reveal new pathways and target — a proof of principle study really — for treatment of cocaine addiction.”

Treatments for cocaine addiction are urgently needed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2008, nearly 1.4 million Americans met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for dependence or abuse of cocaine (in any form) in the past 12 months. Cocaine was also involved in 482,188 emergency department visits across the nation in 2008.

This research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

About The Mount Sinai Medical Center

The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses both The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Established in 1968, Mount Sinai School of Medicine is one of the leading medical schools in the United States. The Medical School is noted for innovation in education, biomedical research, clinical care delivery, and local and global community service. It has more than 3,400 faculty in 32 departments and 14 research institutes, and ranks among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and by U.S. News & World Report.

The Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is a 1,171-bed tertiary- and quaternary-care teaching facility and one of the nation's oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. In 2011, U.S. News & World Report ranked The Mount Sinai Hospital 16th on its elite Honor Roll of the nation's top hospitals based on reputation, safety, and other patient-care factors. Of the top 20 hospitals in the United States, Mount Sinai is one of 12 integrated academic medical centers whose medical school ranks among the top 20 in NIH funding and U.S. News & World Report and whose hospital is on the U.S. News & World Report Honor Roll. Nearly 60,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients last year, and approximately 560,000 outpatient visits took place.

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