A team of scientists lead by Dr. Steven Laviolette of Western University in London, Ontario may have discovered how heroin triggers a switch in an area of the brain associated with memory and learning, igniting compulsive cravings for opiates. Opiate addiction is found to be largely controlled by powerful reward memory connections that link euphoric effects of the opiate ingested to the environment triggers. This enforces strong urges and reinforces dependence and relapse.
The team of researchers were able to identify how using heroin induces a certain switch in a memory molecule in the basolateral amygdala. In the early stages of opiate abuse the extracellular signal-related kinase (ERK) pathway is formed. This molecular pathway in the amygdala is responsible for reward memories. These reward memories are what keep an addict coming back for more and more of the drug. It also creates triggers with the environment in which the addict has used the drug in the past. You may have heard people in some groups use the term, “People, Places, Things” to describe triggers. This is the fascinating scientific reason for the importance of avoiding these triggers and removing oneself from people, places, and things that remind the addict of using.
A molecule called calmodulin-dependent kinase II, or CaMKII, controls a new pathway or system in the amygdala discovered by scientists after studying chronic exposure to heroin in lab rats. Using these lab rats may help scientists to develop medications to help target these pathways. If the pathways are able to be controlled, this may be a giant break through in the way opiate addiction and dependence is treated.
Dr Laviolette said, “By targeting that system, we might be able to reverse the effects of chronic opiate exposure and opiate dependence with this brain pathway and essentially switch the brain back into sort of a non-addictive state.” This would be a huge development in treating opiate addiction.
Imagine addiction being a distant memory in our society. This could potentially help people in all fields of dependence, not just opiates. Being able to control the brains urges and allowing the brain to remain in a non-addictive state could save millions of lives. No longer will people feel the urges to smoke cigarettes, abuse alcohol or prescription and street drugs. It could help with over-eating and obesity. It would help to create a sense of control over addiction. This may be years away from being available to patients, but it's definitely taking the right step in helping to figure out the underlying issues of addiction and treating them at the source.