Rats kick cocaine and alcohol with off-the-shelf blood pressure medication
While human addiction is currently being treated with virtual-reality therapy, a more simple solution may have been under our noses the whole time. Or rather in our medicine cabinets.
A study by the University of Texas has found that rats addicted to cocaine or alcohol can have the non-chemical symptoms of their addiction curbed within days by taking the commercially available blood-pressure drug isradipine.
The key here is ‘non-chemical’, as a big part of addiction is social conditioning. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, certain triggers may push you back into bad habits – a familiar pub, certain people, the smell of beer. It was these memories that were disassociated in addicted lab rats through the use of isradipine.
Laboratory rats were trained to associate either a black or a white room with a dose of cocaine or alcohol. Not surprisingly, as addiction took hold, the rats would head straight for the room where they could get their fix.
To break the cycle, researchers experimented with giving their furry patients a high dosage of isradipine – typically used to treat hypertension or high blood pressure. Researchers selected the drug because certain studies have linked it with neuroplasticity – the ability to rewire the brain.
Their hunch proved correct. The cycle was broken in the days that followed, with the rats no longer showing any strong preference for either room.
Researchers suggest this shows that the addiction memories weren’t just being suppressed: they were completely gone. “The isradipine erased memories that led them to associate a certain room with cocaine or alcohol,” explained neuroscientist Hitoshi Morikawa in a press release.
Why would a hypertension drug help rewire the brain? It works by blocking an ion channel that is found in the heart and blood vessels; these are also found in some brain cells. By blocking these brain cells, addictive behavior can be undone, it seems.
Of course, there are issues. Just because a patient is taking isradipine for the cognitive benefits, it doesn’t magically stop the drug from working for its intended purpose – something the researchers are aware of. If it’s found to work in humans, then the high dose required might need to be paired with other treatments to prevent blood pressure falling to dangerously low levels.
That’s a big ‘if’, though. Rats aren’t humans, and so it’s possible that the same impressive outcomes won’t be replicated on larger, less furry subjects. The good news is that it should be easy enough to find out – as isradipine is already approved for human use, conducting clinical trials should be a simpler process than with non-approved drugs.
Another potential benefit of the treatment is that deconditioning the brain could make current rehabilitation treatments far more likely to succeed. As Morikawa explains, “Many addicts want to quit, but their brains are already conditioned. This drug might help the addicted brain become de-addicted.” Hopefully, this rodent-rehab methodology will help two-legged addicts conquer their demons just as effectively.