Monday, August 16, 2010

Chasing the Genes for Cocaine Addiction

Brain protein MeCP2 in the spotlight.

Dr. Edward Sellers, former director of the psychopharmacological research program at the University of Toronto’s Addiction Research Foundation once said to me: “Every cell, every hormone, every membrane in the body has got genetic underpinnings, and while many of the genetic underpinnings are similar in people, in fact there are also huge differences. So on one level, the fact that there is a genetic component to addiction is not very surprising. What is surprising is that you could ever have it show up in a dominant enough way to be something that might be useful in anticipating risk.”

If there existed a set of genes that predisposed people to alcoholism, and possibly other addictions, then these genes had to control the expression of something specific. That’s what genes did.  However, back in the 1990s, addiction researchers could not even agree on the matter of where they should be looking for such physical evidence of genetic difference. In the brain? Among the digestive enzymes? Blood platelets? A gene, or a set of genes, coding for…what? What was it they were supposed to be looking for?

What set of genes coded for addiction?

Something about modern genetic research breeds a strong jolt of excitement. There is the promise of sudden discoveries, headlines, and great leaps forward toward cures for stubborn diseases. Even the most sober scientists seem to get enthused about gene hunting. The idea of curing a disease by locating a defective gene and repairing it is one of the brightest and fondest hopes in medicine. At least 3,000 medical disorders, including diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and some forms of Alzheimer’s are inherited diseases caused by defective genes passed on from generation to generation. But the premature announcements and retractions involving genes for everything from drinking to shyness has brought a hard-won maturity to the field.

These days, the hunt for evidence of genes influencing addiction is drilling very deeply into the molecular underpinnings of neural activity, in a wide-ranging effort to sort out the variety ofgene interactions involved in the genetic propensity for alcoholism and other addictions. 

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWork done at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and published in Nature Neuroscience, recently shone a spotlight on a gene responsible for making a particular protein—MeCP2—needed for normal development of nerve cells in the brain. This gene for methyl CpG binding protein 2 is best known as the gene responsible for a rare genetic brain disorder called Rett syndrome.  

Researchers at Scripps discovered that cocaine increased levels of this regulatory protein in the brains of rats. So did fluoxetine , better known as Prozac, suggesting that the serotonergic system may be involved. “At that point,” according to lead author Paul Kenny, “we wanted to know if this increase was behaviorally significant—did it influence the motivation to take the drug?” Evidently it did. The higher the levels of MeCP2 in the brain, the higher the rats’ motivation to consume cocaine. When the researchers disrupted the expression of MeCP2 with a virus, the rats showed less interest in cocaine.

This is the first evidence that MeCP2 plays some as yet unexplained role in regulating vulnerability to cocaine addiction. Earlier this summer, investigators reported in Nature that another regulatory molecule known as MiRNA-212—a type of RNA involved in gene regulation--had the opposite effect, lessening the test animals’ interest in cocaine. The balancing act between MeCP2 and MiRNA-212 may help explain “the molecular mechanisms that control the transition from controlled to compulsive cocaine intake,” according to the paper, although the mechanisms that regulate this balance are not known.

One strong piece of evidence for this regulatory feedback loop was the finding that, while MeCP2 blocked miR-212 expression, the opposite was also true. “We still don’t know what exactly influences the activity levels of MeCP2 on miR-212 expression,” according to Kenny. “Now we plan to explore what drives it—whether it’s environmentally driven, and if genetic and epigenetic influences are important.” (For more on MeCP2, check this Lab Spaces post.)

NIDA director Nora Volkow said in an NIH press release that the work on MeCP2 “exposed an important effect of cocaine at the molecular level that could prove key to understanding compulsive drug taking.”

Graphics Credit:

Im, H., Hollander, J., Bali, P., & Kenny, P. (2010). MeCP2 controls BDNF expression and cocaine intake through homeostatic interactions with microRNA-212 Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2615

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