Researchers looking into new ways to help drug and alcohol addicts recover have discovered what they call an ‘off switch’ that might possibly be used to eliminate withdrawal symptoms during detox. If they are correct, the detox process could be made substantially safer and a lot easier.

The research, carried out at Brigham Young University in the US, was based on an unknown relationship between dopamine and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). What they discovered about this relationship has significant implications for a number of things ranging from drug addiction to treating Parkinson’s disease.

We already know that the primary cause of physical dependence on drugs or alcohol is dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for creating the feelings of pleasure we enjoy when engaging in our favourite activities. Almost all drugs used for recreational purposes cause the brain to produce excess levels of dopamine. Furthermore, they prevent the dopamine from being re-absorbed as normal, leading to feelings of euphoria.

What researchers discovered is that the brain begins to compensate for excessive dopamine by producing the BDNF protein. Here’s how it works:

  1. As the substance abuser’s habit increases, his or her brain is exposed to gradually increasing amounts of dopamine.
  2. Prolonged exposure to excessive dopamine can cause brain damage by tearing apart neurons (this is commonly seen with methamphetamine).
  3. In order to protect against further brain damage, the brain produces the BDNF protein.
  4. This protein shuts down dopamine production (thus the ‘off switch’). 

Researchers proposed they could eliminate withdrawal symptoms simply by manipulating the BDNF protein. Their hypothesis was based in the knowledge that a lack of dopamine is what induces withdrawal symptoms, driving addicts to continue taking the drug in order to prevent a crash. Turning the switch back on by eliminating BDNF would prevent withdrawal symptoms from occurring.

Lab rats were used to test the hypothesis with very good results. Though the research is not conclusive, it looks promising. We may be very close to the point of being able to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, withdrawal symptoms by manipulating BDNF.

Not a Cure

It must be noted that the researchers are not touting their discovery as a cure for addiction. Quite the contrary; the mechanics of addiction make it more than just a physical condition. Some even go so far as to say the physical part of the equation amounts to nothing more than the symptoms of a larger problem. That larger problem is rooted in psychological and emotional issues.

The concept of a dual diagnosis provides a good illustration of the potential scope of addiction. A dual diagnosis is a situation in which an individual has been diagnosed with both an addiction and a psychological problem. For example, it is very common for alcoholics to also be suffering from depression at the same time. However, here’s the thing: it is nearly impossible to figure out if one condition caused the other. It could be that excessive alcohol consumption altered the brain and brought on depression. Nevertheless, it is also possible that deep-rooted depression led to excessive alcohol use.

Should it turn out that the chemical ‘off switch’ can be used to eliminate or reduce withdrawal symptoms, the breakthrough only affects the physical detox process. Recovering addicts would still need to undergo psychotherapeutic treatments to address the psychological and emotional issues. Otherwise, recovery based solely on detox is only treating symptoms. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is the fact that such a narrow approach greatly increases the chances of relapse. And that is not acceptable.

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