Key to Cocaine Addiction May Lead to Treatment

THURSDAY, Jan. 7 (HealthDay News) -- A key mechanism in the brain that helps explain how people become addicted to cocaine has been identified by U.S. government scientists, who say their finding could lead to the development of new treatments for drug addiction.

In experiments with mice, the team at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showed how cocaine affects an epigenetic process called histone methylation. An epigenetic process is a process that influences gene expression without changing a gene's sequence.

These epigenetic changes in the brain's pleasure circuits likely add to an acquired desire for cocaine, according to the study published in the January issue of Science.

"This fundamental discovery advances our understanding of how cocaine addiction works," Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA, said in an agency news release. "Although more research will be required, these findings have identified a key new player in the molecular cascade triggered by repeated cocaine exposure, and thus a potential novel target for the development of addiction medications."

"The more complete picture that we have today of the genetic and epigenetic processes triggered by chronic cocaine [use] give us a better understanding of the broader principles governing biochemical regulation in the brain, which will help us identify not only additional pathways involved but potentially new therapeutic approaches," study investigator Dr. Eric J. Nestler, director of the Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said in the release.

-- Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, news release, Jan. 7, 2010