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Drug addiction, learning share common brain protein

DURHAM, N.C. -- Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators at Duke University Medical Center have linked a gene previously shown to play a role in learning and memory to the early manifestations of drug addiction in the brain. Although scientists had previously speculated that similar brain processes underlie aspects of learning and addiction, the current study in mice is the first to identify a direct molecular link between the two.

The findings suggest new genetic approaches for assessing an individual's susceptibility to drug addiction. They also illuminate the complex series of molecular events that underlie addiction, the researchers said, and ultimately may lead to new therapeutic methods to interfere with that process, thereby curbing the cravings common to addiction.

The Duke-based study, which examined genes involved in the brain's response to cocaine, appears in the Feb. 19, 2004, issue of Neuron. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Zaffaroni Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

"There has been the idea that brain changes in response to psychostimulants may be similar to those critical for learning and memory," said Marc G. Caron, Ph.D., an HHMI investigator at Duke. "Now, for the first time, we have found a molecule that links drug-induced plasticity in one part of the brain to a mechanism that underlies learning and memory in another brain region." Caron is also interim director of the Center for Models of Human Disease, part of Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, and James B. Duke professor of cell biology.

Previous work by other researchers revealed that exposure to cocaine triggers changes in a brain region called the striatum -- a reward center that also plays a fundamental role in movement and emotional responses. Cocaine leads to a sharp increase in communication among nerve cells in the striatum that use dopamine as their chemical messenger. This brain chemical surg
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Contact: Kendall Morgan
kendall.morgan@duke.edu
919-684-4148
Duke University Medical Center
18-Feb-2004


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