Monday, April 22, 2013

Let the Light Shine In: Addiction and Optogenetics

Study says laser light can turn cocaine addiction on and off in rats.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had one word for it: “Wow.”

Writing in the director’s blog at the online NIH site, Collins said that a team of researchers from NIH and UC San Francisco had succeeded in delivering “harmless pulses of laser light to the brains of cocaine-addicted rats, blocking their desire for the narcotic.”

Wow, indeed. It didn’t take long for the science fiction technology of optogenetics to make itself felt in addiction studies. The idea of using targeted laser light to strengthen or weaken signals along neural pathways has proven surprisingly robust. The study by the NIH and the University of California at San Francisco, published in Nature, showed that lab rats engineered to carry light-activated neurons in the prefrontal cortex could be deterred from seeking cocaine. Conversely, laser light used in a way that reduced signaling in this part of the brain led previously sober rats to develop a taste for the drug. As Collins described the work:

The researchers studied rats that were chronically addicted to cocaine. Their need for the drug was so strong that they would ignore electric shocks in order to get a hit. But when those same rats received the laser light pulses, the light activated the prelimbic cortex, causing electrical activity in that brain region to surge. Remarkably, the rat’s fear of the foot shock reappeared, and assisted in deterring cocaine seeking.

All this light zapping took place in a brain region known as the prelimbic cortex. In their paper, Billy T. Chen and coworkers said that they “targeted deep-layer pyramidal prelimbic cortex neurons because they project to brain structures implicated in drug-seeking behavior, including the nucleus accumbens, dorsal striatum and amygdala.” These three subcortical regions are rich in dopamine receptors. In rats that had been challenged with foot shocks before being offered cocaine, “optogenetic prelimbic cortex stimulation significantly prevented compulsive cocaine seeking, whereas optogenetic prelimbic cortex inhibition significantly increased compulsive cocaine seeking.”

What this demonstrates is that similar regions in the human prefrontal cortex, known to regulate such actions as decision-making and inhibitory response control, may be “compromised” in addicted people. This abnormally diminished excitability in turn “impairs inhibitory control over compulsive drug seeking…. We speculate that crossing a critical threshold of prelimbic cortex hypoactivity promotes compulsive behaviors”

This all sounds vaguely unsettling; sort of a cross between phrenology and lobotomy. But it is no such thing, and the study authors believe that stimulation of the prelimbic cortex “might be clinically efficacious against compulsive seeking, with few side effects on non-compulsive reward-related behaviors in addicts.” For now, the researchers confess that they don’t know whether the reduction in cocaine seeking is caused by altered emotional conditioning, or pure cognitive processing.

Actually, nobody expects optogenetics to be used in this way with humans. The thinking is that transcranial magnetic stimulation, the controversial technique that employs noninvasive electromagnetic stimulation at various points on the scalp to alter brain behavior, would be used in place of invasive zaps with lasers. Expect to hear about clinical trials to test this theory in the near future. David Shurtleff, acting deputy director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said  in a prepared statement that the research “advances our understanding of how the recruitment, activation and the interaction among brain circuits can either restrain or increase motivation to take drugs.”

Chen B.T., Yau H.J., Hatch C., Kusumoto-Yoshida I., Cho S.L., Hopf F.W. & Bonci A. (2013). Rescuing cocaine-induced prefrontal cortex hypoactivity prevents compulsive cocaine seeking, Nature, 496 (7445) 359-362. DOI:

Photo credit: Billy Chen and Antonello Bonci

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