The discovery that a molecule in the human brain is linked to drug cravings may help scientists develop a cure for cocaine addiction.

Researchers believe the molecule which is called hypocretin encourages people to become addicted to cocaine by making them feel anxious if they don’t take it. This suggests that developing a way of blocking hypocretin could help people who are dependent on the class-A drug.

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, involved a series of tests being carried out on rats which showed that the molecule made the animals feel stressed and anxious when they were suffering from cocaine withdrawal.

Work could now be carried out to develop medication to counteract this effect, which would make it easier for addicts to stay away from the drug.

Professor Marisa Roberto, from The Scripps Research Institute in the United States, co-authored the study and believes the research could be groundbreaking when it comes to treating drug addicts.

Study could help develop new medications

She said: “Understanding the mechanisms underlying cocaine addiction is important for identifying potential new targets for therapeutic use. The results of this study would suggest that the hypocretin system could be considered a pharmacological target, with the hopes that such a medication could be used in combination with cognitive behavioural therapies.”

During the study, one group of rats was given the option to consume cocaine for one hour each day to mimic the conditions of people who use the drug on an occasional, short-term basis. Another group of the rodents had the opportunity to take cocaine for six hours a day, which could potential cause addiction.

The scientists found that the rats who used cocaine in a compulsive way had increased hypocretin, which caused the central amygdala region of the brain – linked to stress and anxiety – to become overactive. This then motivated the creatures to take more of the drug to try and counteract these negative feelings.

Prof Roberto said: “The rats escalate their daily intake as many human users would.”

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