Addiction is a complicated disease. For those of us who have never had an addiction, it can be easy to wonder why addicts can’t seem to make the decision to stop using and then do it. There are complicated brain chemical pathways that are affected by drugs and alcohol that lead to addiction and that make it almost impossible to stop using. Modern research has uncovered much of the role of the brain in addiction, but more recently has found that the immune system is also important.
The Immune System And The Brain
Your body’s immune system is a complex network of different types of cells that are dedicated to protecting you from foreign invaders that cause sickness. Many of those immune cells live in the brain. These are called glial cells and they work alongside your neurons, or brain cells. The brain cells and immune cells that work together to regulate the responses of the immune system are called collectively, the neuroimmune system. This system keeps the brain healthy and mediates communication between the immune system and the central nervous system.
Addiction’s Effects On The Neuroimmune System
Parts of the neuroimmune system are activated by various factors. Stress is one factor, which is why the feeling of being stressed can actually make you physically sick. Alcohol and drugs also trigger responses in the neuroimmune system. The responses can lead to disrupted decision making. This helps to explain why addicts make choices about using even when doing so is bad for them.
The response of the neuroimmune system to drugs and alcohol also changes a person’s affect and causes feelings of depression. Again, these feelings are characteristic of addiction. Researchers have even found that people with certain genetic variations in their neuroimmune system are more likely than others to succumb to addiction.
Innovative Addiction Treatments
With the increased understanding of how the immune system in the brain impacts addiction, researchers are able to come up with new treatments for this devastating disease. One such possible treatment may help addicts who use opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers. Studies have found that morphine, an opioid drug, binds to a certain immune system receptor that changes the dopamine pathway in the brain.
Dopamine is the brain chemical that is released when we feel something pleasurable. Drugs release huge floods of dopamine, which plays a role in developing addictions. The researchers hope that if they can block the immune receptor with a medication, they can stop the release of dopamine when someone uses an opioid. With no pleasurable sensation, there would be no addiction.
Methamphetamine is another seriously addictive drug that can be just as hard to quit as opioids. Research has shown how the drug negatively impacts the immune system of the user, so new studies have focused on targeting the immune system for treatment medications. A drug being developed for a variety of immune diseases may also help meth addicts. The drug reduces the immune response in the brain, which could help meth addicts feel better. One major hurdle to quitting is that the users feel awful when they give up meth. With the new medication, they may feel better, and less inclined to going back to using.
Other researchers have tackled cocaine addiction by working with the immune system. The new treatment is actually a vaccine. The researchers who developed it created a vaccine that would target cocaine and treat it as if it were an invader like a virus or bacterium. After being injected with the vaccine, mice in laboratory experiments showed an immune response that tackled any cocaine in the body. The result was that the mice did not get a high from cocaine. If the vaccine works in human trials, it could help addicts stop using. If they get no high, there will be no reason to use the drug.
The exciting field of addiction and the immune system is coming up with new information about the disease of addiction every day. With this new knowledge, researchers are able to create treatments that are medically- and evidence-based that may truly help people recover from addiction.