Nature's own antidote to cocaine

Some people's brains may harbor their own built-in defense system against the addictive powers of cocaine. According to new research at The Rockefeller University, a naturally occurring brain opiate called dynorphin may, in certain individuals, serve as an antidote to counter the pleasurable, yet dangerous, effects of cocaine.

In the latest Neuropsychiatric Genetics section of the American Journal of Medical Genetics, Mary Jeanne Kreek, M.D., and Rockefeller University colleagues report that people carrying a "high-output" version of the dynorphin gene - one that is thought to result in higher levels of this protein in the brain - may be better protected against cocaine dependence or abuse than those carrying a "low-output" form.

"These results are preliminary, but do suggest that genetic differences in the gene that codes for dynorphin are correlated with individual variations of vulnerability to cocaine abuse," says Kreek, head of the Laboratory of Biology of Addictive Diseases at Rockefeller and senior physician at the Rockefeller Hospital.

"This kind of knowledge is important for the development of both preventative and drug-based treatment strategies for people suffering from cocaine addiction," she adds. Kreek, together with Rockefeller Professor Emeritus Vincent Dole and his late wife and colleague Marie Nyswander, pioneered methadone maintenance programs for the treatment of heroin addicts in the 1960s.

The new genetic association study compared DNA samples from 174 participants, including 83 people who had been previously diagnosed with cocaine dependence or abuse, and 91 "control" individuals with no prior history of any substance abuse. The results suggest that individuals who harbor the high-output form of the dynorphin gene have a significantly lower risk of becoming dependent upon or abusing cocaine than people with the low-output version. The p-value - a measure of statistical significance - for this study was .042

Contact: Whitney Clavin
Rockefeller University

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