Cocaine is a highly addictive and powerful drug that many users take recreationally. While some people can take cocaine and never develop a problem, many will develop a destructive crack cocaine addiction that can destroy their lives. Those who take the drug may experience feelings of euphoria and confidence although there is also the risk that the user may become aggressive, restless and paranoid. Some people will become over-confident and may take unnecessary risks that can lead to accidents and injuries.

Cocaine addiction is very difficult to overcome as when the effects of the drug wear off the user may experience intense cravings to take more. The most significant problem with cocaine is the fact that the effects of the drug last only a short time. This means that when the effects wear off, users are tempted to take more to get high again. This results in them building up a tolerance very quickly, which can lead to a physical and psychological addiction that can be extremely difficult to overcome.

Possible Cocaine Treatment

Scientists at the McGill University Health Centre’s research institute in Montreal have conducted a study into microglia and believe that the results may pave the way for a possible treatment for cocaine addiction.

Microglia is a type of brain cell responsible for a number of important brain functions. It is now believed that these microglia can help to decrease the effect of cocaine on the brain. The study was published in the Neuron journal. It showed that there might be a possibility of creating a new treatment for cocaine addiction by harnessing the microglia’s ability to lower the changes that cocaine use can have on the neural circuitry of the brain.

Senior author David Stellwagen said, “What we discovered is that cocaine activates these microglia, which causes the release of an inflammatory signal, which then tries to reverse the changes that cocaine is inducing in the neurons.”

Maintaining Normal Brain Function

One of the primary jobs of the microglia is to maintain healthy brain function. If these brain cells detect that something is not quite right, they will produce molecules that will result in neurons making the necessary changes to keep brain functioning on track. An example of the type of molecule produced is the TNF (tumour necrosis factor).

During the study, scientists analysed the effect of TNF on a number of brain synapses using a mouse model. Co-author Sarah Konefal said, “These connections are really important for regulating the behaviour response in animal models to drugs of abuse such as cocaine.”

The study showed that TNF suppresses certain changes in the synapses caused by cocaine use. It is thought that these changes were responsible for cocaine addiction. Unfortunately, the positive effect of the microglia tends to be temporary, and Dr Stellwagen said, “One of the things that could transition somebody from just casual use into chronic dependency might be the fading of this adaptive signal which then allows the drugs to solidify their change to the neural circuitry.”

The scientists wanted to check if the effect of the microglia could be prolonged by introducing a pharmaceutical agent. This agent encourages the production of TNF, and the results showed that the mice that received the agent saw a reduction in the cocaine related behaviour change to the brain. There is now hope that a treatment can be developed for cocaine addicts that will reduce relapse rates, which currently stand at about eighty per cent.

Dr Stellwagen said, “If we could develop a treatment that would suppress the craving that addicts have in stressful situations, or when they are re-exposed to situations in which they’d normally be taking the drug, that may allow them to avoid relapse. And that’s really the therapeutic goal of the work we have been doing.”

There is also hope that the release of TNF in the brain could work to suppress cravings for cocaine and then be adapted to work with other addictive substances such as methamphetamine and alcohol.

Current Cocaine Treatments

Because of the way that prolonged cocaine use can change the function of the brain, it is a notoriously difficult addiction to treat. Cravings for the drug persist long after a person has stopped taking it, and it is this that often results in relapse. Some people will continue to crave cocaine for a number of years, and it can prove difficult to resist. The relapse rate for cocaine and crack cocaine addiction remains very high.

Treatment for cocaine and crack cocaine addiction at the moment involves treating both the physical and psychological aspects of the illness. There is also a need to address the social side of it. It may be necessary for those who want to overcome a cocaine addiction to complete a programme of detoxification before beginning a rehabilitation programme that could include cognitive behavioural therapy, one-to-one counselling, motivational interviewing and group therapy. At the moment, there is no medication to treat cocaine addiction, but with continued research into the illness, new treatments could soon be available.

Sources: CounselHeal

The Science Explorer

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