Scientists have long known that the physical ramifications of addiction can lead to a wide range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental disorders and more. But, researchers are only just beginning to understand the neurochemical basis of it – that is, the biological and chemical reactions that happen inside the brain of an addict.
Emergent technologies in addiction research
A study out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is using a new technology called optogenetics to research addiction, specifically alcoholism. Optogenetics is a relatively new process in which researchers can control specific groups of brain cells (called neurons) with light. While scientists have previously been able to interfere with neurons on a biological level, an entire area of the brain would have to be activated in the process. Optogenetics, however, allows for much more specific targeting of neurons.
Evgeny A. Budygin, Ph.D., is the assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and is using optogenetics to research the role of dopamine when it comes to alcohol-related behaviors. Budygin and team used a rodent model to gauge whether optogenetics could be used to target cells associated with alcohol drinking, and subsequently control some of the associated behaviors.
Jeffrey L. Weiner, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist, explains that the primary challenge was using the technology in a way that acted similarly to the brain itself. Once this was achieved, the goal was to disrupt the addictive alcohol-related processes in the study rats. So far, their results have been positive.
“You can place an electrode in the brain and apply an electrical current to mimic the way brain cells get excited, but when you do that you’re activating all the cells in that area,” explains Weiner. “With optogenetics, we were able to selectively control a specific population of dopamine cells in a part of the brain-reward system. Using this technique, we discovered distinct patterns of dopamine cell activation that seemed to be able to disrupt the alcohol-drinking behavior of the rats.”
Though the study has yet to progress out of the rodent group, it offers hope for potential new addiction treatments. When asked about the value behind the study, Weiner explained that it might be possible to apply the concept of optogenetics to treatment options. “It gives us better insight into how we might want to use something like deep-brain stimulation to treat alcoholism.”
Dr. Budygin also agreed that the study offers new possibilities. “Now we are taking the first steps in this direction,” he says. “It was impossible before the optogenetic era.”
If you’re struggling with addiction or seeking treatment options for a loved one who is, contact The Watershed today. Our expert staff is available to address your specific needs 24/7. 1-800-861-1768.