Does cocaine permanently change brain structure?
Scientists at the University of Missouri are using computational models to show how the brain's synaptic mechanisms react to cocaine, which could help shape effective treatment.
"Our model showed that the glutamate transporters, a protein present around these connections that remove glutamate, are almost 40 percent less functional after chronic cocaine usage," says Ashwin Mohan, a doctoral student in the department of electrical and computer engineering. "This damage is long lasting, and there is no way for the brain to regulate itself. Thus, the brain structure in this context actually changes in cocaine addicts."
The team found that the parameters of the brain that activate the pleasure center's connections have to actually be changed in order for addicts to recover. In other words, recovery requires some level of rewiring. The computer model's prediction was confirmed based on experimental studies done on animal models.
"The long-term objective of our research is to find out how some rehabilitative drugs work by devising a model of the fundamental workings of an addict's brain," says Mohan. "Using a systems approach helped us to find key information about the addict's brain that had been missed in the past two decades of cocaine addiction research."
Around 2 million Americans are current (past-month) users of cocaine, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, while about 36 million Americans age 12 and older have reported having used cocaine.