Researchers at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center have pinpointed a specific protein produced by the body’s immune system which may be responsible for a person becoming addicted to cocaine. The scientists believe this discovery could be instrumental in helping to cure cocaine addiction, since they have successfully defeated cocaine dependency in laboratory mice.
The protein, granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), affects the brain’s reward centers. In cocaine users, levels of G-CSF increase in the brain with repeated use.
Medical Therapies for Treating Cocaine
Lead researcher Dr. Drew Kiraly, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Psychiatry, explained that the results of the study are a very exciting development. Dr. Kiraly pointed out that cocaine addiction has traditionally been treated with psychotherapy and 12-step programs; to date, there are no medication-assisted therapy options available.
Researchers injected G-CSF into the nucleus acumbens (brain reward centers) of laboratory mice. They noted that the mice displayed a “significant increase” in seeking out and consuming cocaine. As the level of G-CSF doses was gradually increased, the mice worked harder to find even more cocaine.
When the research team tested a treatment to neutralize G-CSF, they discovered that the mice’s motivation to look for the drug disappeared. The changes in G-CSF levels were linked exclusively to urges to use cocaine. The mice were still as interested in other treats, such as sugar water, which also activate the reward centers in the brain.
The results of the study were published in Nature Communications. The scientists point out that addiction treatments are plagued with difficulties for several reasons, including issues with “side effects, routes of delivery, or abuse potential of agents tested.”
Future Non-Addictive Treatment Option Might Be Possible
The potential for substance abuse is a risk factor in other options currently in development. The risk is that patients are being weaned from one addictive substance in favor of another one.
The authors of the study feel that G-CSF has the advantage of being an option for reducing the urge to use cocaine while being non-addictive. Dr. Kiraly says there is work required to adapt the study’s findings to humans. However, there is a “high possibility” of it leading to future treatments for human clients.
Dr. Kiraly points out that medications that can change G-CSF are already available and are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Once researchers are able to clarify the best ways to target G-CSF inhibitors to reduce addiction-related behaviors, there is every reason to be optimistic that treatments will be developed for patients.