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Laser could zap away cocaine addiction

Addiction to drugs, cocaine in particular, may one day be easily treated just like patching up a cut with a Band-Aid.  A study currently being conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have found that laser stimulation of the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex in rats wiped away the compulsive urge to take cocaine.

The laser treatment in the lab rats work through both mechanical as well as biological pathways.  First, researchers inject into the neuron of the rats genetically engineered rhodopsins—light-sensitive protein. Then, using a technique called optogenetics, the researchers aim a laser at the rhodopsins to induce non-compulsive behaviors by turning on the rhodopsin.

Essentially, the rhodopsin is the light bulb, and the laser is the switch mechanism.  Turning on the rhodopsin by pointing a laser at it will wipe out compulsive behaviors and when the protein is turned off, it’s back to being in the dark for the poor rat.

Currently, a similar prelimbic treatment for depression in human is being done through a process known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and researchers believe that there is a strong link between the rat’s laser addiction treatment and the current human-approved depression treatment.  Antontello Bonci, MD and one of the scientists of the study at NIH, is planning to run a few clinical tests on humans using the laser-rhodopsin method. 

An in-depth coverage of this study is found here.


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