Brain-imaging study offers clues to inhalant abuse

UPTON, NY -- Inhalant abuse, also known as "huffing," is a rapidly growing health problem, particularly among young people. However, little is known about how inhaled chemicals affect the brain and body. Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory -- inspired by schoolchildren who wanted to know more about huffing -- have produced the first-ever images showing what parts of the brain and body are most affected by toluene, a commonly inhaled solvent. The study, which was performed in baboons and mice, appears in the April 26 issue of the journal Life Sciences (available online April 15).

The images show that toluene moves into the brain rapidly and initially affects the same brain regions as cocaine and other abused drugs. Then, toluene spreads more generally to the entire brain before clearing the body rapidly via the kidneys. "This affinity for brain regions associated with reward and pleasure, as well as the quick uptake and clearance, may help to explain why inhalants are so commonly abused," said lead author Madina Gerasimov, a Brookhaven chemist.

"For the first time, we have shown in living animals where the most commonly used solvent goes in the brain and the whole body," said Brookhaven neuroanatomist Stephen Dewey, a coauthor.

"This study was really born out of my going to elementary schools, where I've been giving talks about Brookhaven's addiction research since 1995," said Dewey. During his talks, children as young as fourth and fifth graders would sometimes ask him about huffing. "After about the third or fourth time someone asked me, I proposed that we develop a way to label and image solvents, which seem to be a 'gateway' drug of abuse for some young children," he said.

The team chose toluene because it is one of the most common industrial solvents, found in paints, glues, and other household products often abused by huffers. To label the toluene, Brookhaven chemists replaced some

Contact: Karen McNulty Walsh
DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory

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