Cocaine addiction can be a nasty affliction that, if left unchecked, has the huge potential to throw a person’s relationships, career, and cash down the toilet. And those are the lucky ones. Death is the ultimate price for some, as thousands die from cocaine overdoses every year.
So how do you fight such a strong drug addiction? If you’re a researcher, your answer might lie in one simple word — lasers.
A new study has emerged that suggests lasers pointed at a particular area of the brain may halt the addiction in its tracks. Researchers from The National Institute of Drug Abuse, Ernest Gallo Clinic, and the Research Center at UC San Francisco treated cocaine-addicted rats with laser-light therapies targeted at the prelimbic region of the prefrontal coretex. The results are astounding. Like human addicts, the rats couldn’t help themselves from obsessively looking for the drug. Even the threat of pain (which they were conditioned to expect) didn’t stop them. But the lasers did. It stopped them cold. Turns out, they could use the treatment to turn the addiction on or off, like flipping a switch.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that this is ready or available for humans anytime soon. First of all, pointing lasers at people’s brains is dangerous. Second, it’s one thing to say it works on rats, but it’s a whole other thing to prove that it can do the job on actual people. And third, it’s more complicated than just lining patients up, zapping them and then sending them on their way. In the rat experiment, light-sensitive proteins had to be genetically engineered and then inserted into the brain, to allow the neurons to be manipulated with the lasers.
Good thing the researchers figured out a safer approach. Apparently transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is already in use to treat depression, can get the job done. It has been shown to similarly activate the prelimbic cortex using external electromagnetic fields instead of lasers. This is what has the scientists most excited, as they prepare for upcoming clinical trials at the National Institute of Health.
Currently, addiction treatments are pretty hit-or-miss, but if the positive results hold up, we could be on the verge of ending cocaine addiction for good.