Lasers and algae genes: tools for effective cocaine addiction treatment?

By Laura Mize • Published: July 2nd, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Could treatment for cocaine addiction one day be as simple as flipping a switch?

Scientists from the National Institute on Drug Addiction say increasing activity in a specific area of addicted rats’ brains counteracts deficits caused by cocaine and tones down their compulsions to go after the drug. Decreasing such brain activity in rats who aren’t addicted makes them seek out cocaine.

OK, so adjusting levels of brain activity isn’t exactly as simple as flipping a switch. But for struggling addicts and their loved ones, it may someday be the breakthrough development they’ve sought. Currently, no medication exists for treating cocaine addiction. Instead, most addicts undergo behavioral therapy and relapse is common.

The brain therapy is performed using optogenetics, a method developed for research in 2006. Optogenetics requires inserting a gene activated by light, which is taken from algae, into the part of the brain to be manipulated. The next step is to shine a laser on the area that now contains the gene, causing it to activate or deactivate.

In the recent study, the laser-activated gene bumped activity levels in the brain’s prefrontal cortex up or down. The National Institutes of Health likens the treatment to “resetting” a brain plagued by addiction.

The scientists who tested this therapy in rats believe it could control cocaine seeking in humans, too. The next step is to test that belief through clinical trials. If the therapy is effective for people, it may one day be used to treat other addictions, as well.

Yet this seemingly promising therapy won’t replace treatment or counseling for underlying issues that may fuel addiction. Addressing relationship woes, financial problems, mental health conditions or other existing troubles is essential to embracing a healthful, drug-free life.