UNC scientists find important new clue to puzzle of addictive behavior

CHAPEL HILL -- By applying a novel technique to measure changes in chemicals in the brain instantly, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have discovered what they believe is a major new clue to what causes addictions to cocaine and possibly other drugs including alcohol and tobacco.

The scientists have found that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which earlier was linked to mammals' internal reward system and to drug abuse, increased significantly in the brain moments before laboratory rats decided to get more cocaine by pressing on a special bar.

That chemical signal, triggered by an outside cue, appears to cause the rodents to seek the drug and may parallel what happens moments before humans seek out substances to which they are addicted.

"Our findings reveal for the first time that rapid dopamine transmission occurs during key components of cocaine-seeking behavior and during presentation of cocaine-associated stimuli," said Dr. Regina M. Carelli, associate professor of psychology at UNC. "Rather than just having a pharmacological effect, dopamine increases in response to cues that have a learned association to cocaine. "Our work indicates that just the anticipation of receiving cocaine may cause significant increases in dopamine levels that may control drug-taking behaviors."

A report on the findings appears in the April 10 issue of Nature, a scientific journal. Besides Carelli, authors, all at UNC, are Dr. Paul E.M. Phillips, research assistant professor of psychology; Garret D. Stuber and Michael L.A.V. Heien, graduate students in neurobiology and chemistry, respectively; and Dr. R. Mark Wightman, Kenan professor of chemistry.

The experiments involved surgically inserting a delicate carbon fiber electrode into an area of the rats' brains called the nucleus accumbens that has been associated with drug use to measure changes in dopamine concentrations in relation to rats' behavior, Phillips said. Previ

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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