Reversing cocaine's hold on addicts

April 25, 2006

Brussels, 24 Apr 2006

Swiss scientists are tantalisingly close to releasing the grip that cocaine has over addicts the world over. Their findings, appearing in a leading scientific journal this month, reveal a better understanding of how this drug affects the brains of those addicted.

Cocaine is a crystalline tropane alkaloid created from the leaves of the coca plant which, when taken, stimulates the central nervous system, suppresses appetite and gives the user a sense of euphoria and increased energy. Perhaps best known as a recreational drug, cocaine was historically used as an anaesthetic in eye and throat surgery in the 19th century.

By the 20th century, the dangers of addiction and associated dysfunction began to materialise. Although much more is known about its physical and psychological effects, one piece of the puzzle remained elusive. That is until recently, when Professor Christian Lüscher and Camillar Bellone of Geneva University's Faculty of Medicine (UNIGE), published their findings on the mechanisms of cocaine addiction. The results appear in an April issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Working with mice, the UNIGE scientists showed that the irresistible craving for the drug relates to changes it induces in the way neurons communicate. They went one step further and proved the effectiveness of a substance which reverses the phenomenon. This raises hope of a pharmaco-therapeutic treatment for cocaine addiction within five to ten years – providing it is commercially viable.

On the subject of viability, the researchers have a trump card. They say that the links between appetite suppression, cocaine and any resulting treatment is strong enough to open drug-makers' doors because obesity is a major health threat affecting up to 30% of the population in some countries.

Cocaine's rise to infamy Apparently, it was Vassili von Anrep of the University of Wursburg (DE) who, in 1879, used frogs legs to test the analgesic properties of this newly-discovered alkaloid. Earlier, in 1859, Italian doctor Paolo Mantegazza witnessed Peruvian natives' use of the coca plant and, on his return to Milan, wrote a paper in which he described the medicinal benefits against "a furred tongue in the morning [and] flatulence".

By the twentieth century, the addictive properties and consequences of cocaine abuse were becoming clear to many. The problem of cocaine abuse was gaining public attention in the United States, in particular. The street value of cocaine in the USA is estimated (in 2003) at more than $35 billion (around €29 billion). Its high value, some say, may be down to the drug's psychologically addictive nature, making quitting more difficult.

According to studies, cocaine abuse is associated with a risk of heart attack seven times that of non-users. Today, throughout Europe and most of the world, possession, cultivation, and distribution of the drug is illegal for non-medicinal purpose.

DG Research
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