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Can Medication Stop Addiction?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)'s most recent reports, around 23.5 million people aged 12 and above in the United States, needed treatment for a problem with alcohol or drugs. Putting a definitive stop to addiction has always been considered next to impossible because the causes of addiction are mysterious and manifold. Recent research carried out at the University of Texas at Austin, however, offers new hope, with findings that an FDA-approved medication currently prescribed to treat high blood pressure, may stop addiction in its tracks. Although the drug has thus far been tested on laboratory rats, if results obtained are similar in humans, it would be the first medication to do so. The key to its efficiency, it seems, is its ability to erase the unconscious memories at the root of addiction. The study is based on recent findings that environmental cues – the situations people and sensations people encounter when they drink or take drugs – are one of the primary triggers for relapse. The researchers harked back to Pavlov's dog, who began salivating when he heard a trigger which normally accompanied his feeding, even though he could not see or smell the food itself.

The researchers trained lab rats to associate one of two rooms (either black or white) with drug use. The rats became addicted to the drug and always chose the room associated with their drug consumption. However, in one experiment, the researchers gave the drugs a medication called isradipine (used to lower blood pressure) before they were allowed to make their choice of room. On that day, the rats continued to choose their 'drug room' yet, in subsequent days, they lost their preference for this room, which did not occur in a control group. The findings showed that isradipine effectively erased the memories that led them to the room which contained cocaine or alcohol.

Their findings make sense because we already know that addictive drugs rewire the part of the brain involved in reward learning. Powerful memories are created around the use of addictive drugs. Medications like isradipine basically block specific channels in the brain, thereby reversing the rewiring that underpins previous experiences with addictive substances. This can make rehabilitation significantly more achievable. As the lead author of the study noted, addicts who undergo rehabilitation treatment may desperately want to quit. However, their brains are already conditioned for relapse. Medications such as isradipine can effectively help addicts start their treatment with a cleaner slate, as it were, and because these medications are already approved and widely prescribed, their use for rehabilitation could likely encounter less obstacles than from new medications which do not bear the FDA seal of approval.

One effect which may occur from the use of isradipine is the lowering of blood pressure. Other side effects of the medication include dizziness, headache, nausea (and upset stomach), etc. Those taking the medications who do not have high blood pressure may therefore need to be prescribed a complementary medication that will ensure their pressure is kept at a sound level. It is also vital that anyone taking this medication should have their progress checked regularly by a health professional, to ensure aims are being achieved and no unwanted effects occur. Hypotension, which can cause confusion, light-headedness, sweating, unusual tiredness, etc. Another possible side effect of the drug is fluid retention (edema).

Another recent breakthrough in the use of medication to treat addiction has been made by scientists at the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. The drug is called pindolol, which has been found to reduce ethanol/alcohol consumption, particularly in those who binge drink. Like isradipine, pindodol is used to treat high blood pressure and angina. ""More research is required but we believe the results from our study show that pindolol represents a novel, safe and ready to test treatment therapy option for managing alcohol dependence in humans," said the lead researcher of the study. As is the case with the isradipine study, the experiments have thus far only been carried out on laboratory rats, so that testing on humans is necessary before the medications can be approved for human rehabilitation. Scientists are confident, however, that it won't be long before medication of this nature is relied upon to give those wishing to quite substance abuse, a greater chance of success.

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