While there are some people who still argue about whether drug addiction is a disease or a condition that results from the moral failing of an individual, most of the scientific community has long agreed that there are at least some influences on it that are far beyond a person’s control.
I’ve mentioned the genetic influences that have been shown to be associated with a risk for addiction before (look here). However, most of the research I’ve been involved in myself recently has more to do with the way that trying drugs changes your brain in ways that make it more likely that you’ll try them again.
Along these lines, a recently published study has shown that very specific molecular targets can have a huge impact on the probability that addicts will keep going after drugs. The molecules studied were common targets of cocaine that are altered after long-term use of coke.
The interesting thing is that the research found that deactivating each of these targets produced completely different effects:
Animals that had the GluR1 receptor subunit turned off were unable to stop themselves from searching for cocaine in a spot where it used to be long after normal mice gave up. I don’t know about you, but that sounds more than a little relevant for addiction given what I know, and have experienced. We’ve been studying this sort of stuff for a while, but the fact that a single molecule can make an animal pursue drugs in a way that is completely irrational is amazing!
Animals that had the NR1 receptor subunit turned off experienced a different effect. While normal mice relapse to drug use when they experience a drug after a long break, the NR1 deficient mice just wouldn’t go back to their addictive behavior when they got a little sample. Again, the implications for relapse preventions are promising to say the least.
In short, while some people may think there’s still a reason to argue whether people with addiction should simply be left to god’s mercy, ongoing work is showing us that we can uncover specific molecular mechanisms that may one day allow us to combat addiction with much more success. I for one welcome that.