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.

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. DEA

Cocaine addiction is notoriously tough to beat. Engineers at the University of Missouri in Columbia, using computational models, think they now better understand why.

"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.

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About the author

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.

 

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