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A stimulating suggestion for treating cocaine addiction

December 28, 2009 |  4:41 pm

With apologies to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, if this is your brain …


… and this is your brain on drugs …


… then perhaps this is what your drug-addicted brain would look like after being treated with deep brain stimulation:


To hear a team of French researchers tell it, electrical stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus -- or STN -- is a promising treatment for cocaine addiction that ought to be tried in people.

Cocaine use floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel really good. Previous strategies to break cocaine addiction relied on messing with the dopamine system, but that had the unwelcome side effect of damping one’s motivation to do healthy things as well, such as eating.

DBSBut the STN can distinguish between healthy behaviors that merit a dopamine reward and drug abuse, which doesn’t. The French scientists had previously shown that inducing a lesion in the STN of rats damped their desire for cocaine but kept their appetites intact.

In their latest study, they demonstrate that deep brain stimulation produces the same results without causing permanent damage.

Cocaine-addicted rats treated with deep brain stimulation were about half as willing as their untreated counterparts to press a lever over and over again to get a hit of the drug. When the researchers switched the two groups and began stimulating the brains of the “control” rats, they were the ones who lost some interest in pressing the lever, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists also found that untreated rats preferred to hang out in the place where they had previously gotten cocaine but had no particular preference to the area where they received food. In contrast, the rats who got deep brain stimulation were indifferent to the area associated with cocaine and instead hung around the place where they expected to be fed.

Deep brain stimulation is already used to treat movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and is being tested for an array of problems, including traumatic brain injury, obesity, Alzheimer’s and chronic pain, according to this Times' Health section article. Perhaps cocaine addiction will soon join that list.

-- Karen Kaplan

Egg photo credits (from top): Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times, Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times and Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Photo: Devices surgically implanted in the brain may someday help cocaine addicts kick the habit. Credit: David M. Grossman / Associated Press