Can Magnets Fight Cocaine Addiction?
Cocaine addiction is one of the toughest illnesses to treat. Although scientists do not yet understand the entire mechanism of addiction, it is believed that the brain’s pleasure center plays a major role in the disease. Pleasure center cells appear in the prefrontal cortex and have long been thought to be responsible for impulse control. In fact, it is believed that a low level of activity in the prefrontal cortex is one characteristic of an addict.
The method used to treat cocaine addiction has traditionally been a combination of abstinence and psychotherapy or behavioral therapy. Given how strong cocaine addiction can be, however, many people do not stay in recovery permanently. In fact, it can take several cycles of drug rehab to finally be free of the relentless cravings. By this point, many cocaine addicts have suffered from the consequences of prolonged addiction such as organ damage, social issues, family problems, financial disaster and job loss.
Prefrontal Cortex Activity and Cocaine Addiction
There is new hope for people suffering from cocaine addiction and it comes in the form of a potential cure, not just remission. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of California at San Francisco have been able to eradicate cocaine addiction in rats by focusing beams of laser light into their brain matter.
The scientists used genetic engineering to place rhodopsins (proteins that react to light) directly into the rats’ brain cells at the prefrontal cortex. When light is introduced, those particular cells will fire. The rats were then administered enough cocaine to develop a bona fide addiction, the hallmark of which is engaging in behavior that will result in the administration of more cocaine.
Using fiber optic cabling implanted in the tiny brains, the researchers were able to direct laser beams onto the brain cells that contained the rhodopsins. Once these prefrontal cortex neurons were activated, the subject immediately stopped all cocaine-seeking behavior. When the light was extinguished, the rats resumed behavior associated with addiction.
Although this is great news for those engaged in addiction research, the practical implications are less clear. At issue is the ability to activate prefrontal cortex neurons in human beings on a continuous basis without affecting activities of daily life. Although it is certainly possible to carry out surgical experiments similar to those undertaken by the NIH, invasive brain surgery is not something we would consider as a long-term treatment method.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Cocaine Addiction
Thankfully, scientists are already researching ways to activate prefrontal cortex neurons in cocaine addicts’ brains without using a scalpel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves using a magnetic field on top of the scalp to influence behavior of the cells below the skull. This non-invasive and completely pain free process uses a coil to focus the magnetic field onto particular areas and patients experience nothing more serious than the feeling of being tapped on the head. In order to activate the cells, a high-frequency pulse is used.
The NIH plans to begin human trials of the treatment soon and hopes to show that TMS can activate prefrontal cortex neurons as effectively as the laser-light method. It remains unclear whether the relief achieved will be only temporary and, thus, require indefinite treatments. In any event, TMS may provide craving relief long enough to allow more traditional methods of cocaine addiction treatment to take hold.