Addiction treatment has long been the domain of psychiatry—treat the mind and you can control the impulse. But in recent years, science has taken a more active role in understanding and alleviating our vices. This month, Danish researchers, apparently taking this to its logical conclusion, announced that they're developing an antidote to cocaine.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen essentially stumbled upon a compound that looks and behaves like cocaine by binding to the same targets in the brain. Unlike cocaine, however, it doesn't induce feelings of euphoria, but simply occupies cocaine receptors—so if you snort some coke, it won't have any effect. They also hypothesize that due to similarities in how amphetamines and cocaine affect the brain, it may also be able to help treat methamphetamine addiction.
Claus Juul Loland, who led the research, likens the compound to methadone in use and administration—"You will have to take it every day to make sure your dopamine supporters are occupied," he said. Claus is quick to add this is an antidote, not a cure, and stopping your buzz doesn't mean your addiction is licked. "Your addiction and need for the drug will still be there. But that's not a cure; it's just a help."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse places rates of relapse for coke addicts between 40 and 60 percent, even when they get help. The process often takes years and can be incredibly costly. Claus envisions the receptor blocker as playing a role alongside traditional treatment. "Drugs that aid you in getting rid of your addiction would be a great step forward," he said.
The growing role of chemical intervention in drug abuse is being explored, but the early comparisons to controversial treatments like methadone are already raising questions about side effects. Going after addiction with other drugs is complicated; when targeting parts of the brain, we can never be totally selective. "If you modify the dopamine levels you also modify motivation, mood, and levels of depression," Claus warned. "They're all affected by the same type of neurons."
Comparing the mood altering effects to antidepressants, he noted that the drugs are not supposed to be used as a chronic therapy. This is a tool to use over a period while coping with the more tumultuous periods of addiction and recovery. In fact, long-term manipulation of dopamine can be dangerous if it leads to increased levels over a period of time. Dopamine can be quite a toxic compound, although you would have to take the antidote treatment for a while to feel the effects. "But if you take them for ten years you have another problem," Claus quipped.
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