With Australians ranking fourth in the world as cocaine abuse, its use offers a false sense of energy, confidence and conversation that quickly turns into a dangerous addiction.
Lead author Dr Alexis Northcutt from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Adelaide’s Professor Mark Hutchinson started a research on neuropathic and chronic pain, and discovered that a toll-like receptor (TLR4) is responsible for amplifying the morphine’s addictive properties.
The research was published in the Nature journal, Molecular Psychiatry.
“Our previous studies have shown that TLR4 is responsible for amplifying addiction to opioid drugs such as heroin, but this is the first time we’ve discovered it has a key role to play in cocaine addiction,” Professor Hutchinson said.
Scientists discovered that the immune system communicates with the brain constantly, providing updates on health changes. For a long time, the scientific community believed that glial brain cells acted as a glue inside the brain and also feeding the neurons. However, these cells are also capable to recognize and respond to situations.
“So what’s happening is glial cells in the brain are seeing cocaine or seeing morphine as, well, opioids and they think ‘oh no, this is an invading pathogen’, it’s like stranger danger,” Dr Northcutt said. “Then they mount this immune response that seems to be a really critical element to what makes drugs addictive.”
With this at hand, scientists wanted to find a method to stop opioids from binding to TLR4, and used the drug plus naloxone successfully. The clinical trials will start soon.
The most exciting news for researchers was that such a treatment may be used with similar success to deal the addictive properties of other drugs.
Dr Northcutt said the research team also had some promising results with alcohol and methamphetamines.
“We haven’t looked into things like tobacco or other drugs yet but there’s a strong possibility that this is a very common occurrence across many substances that are abused,” she said.