With an estimated 1.4 million Americans addicted to cocaine, scientists think they might have come up with an “unconventional” treatment that could help cure the addiction that often places an economic burden on society and results in heart attacks and strokes.
Researchers with the National Institutes of Health, the Ernest Gallo Clinic and the Research Center at University of California-San Francisco successfully tested a method in rats that cures the addiction by zapping the brain with a laser.
“When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone,” Antonello Bonci, MD, scientific director of the intramural research program at the NIH’s National Institute of Drug Abuse and adjunct professor at UCSF and at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.
On the flip side, the laser light in that area of the brain can also turn rats not addicted to cocaine into addicts.
The press release on the study stated that such a technique shows promise for human treatment someday. It also noted that a laser specifically would not be used on humans. Clinical trials involving humans would use a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation instead.
Here’s more more the press release regarding how the research was conducted and how scientists hope it would work in humans:
First they took light-sensitive proteins called rhodopsins and used genetic engineering to insert them into neurons in the rat’s prefrontal cortex. Activating this region with a laser tuned to the rhodopsins turned the nerve cells on and off.
Turning on these cells wiped out the compulsive behavior, while switching them off turned the non-addicted ones into addicted, researchers found.
What’s exciting, said Bonci, is that there is a way to induce a similar activation of the prelimbic cortex in people through a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which applies an external electromagnetic field to the brain and has been used as a treatment for symptoms of depression.
The research was published in the journal Nature.