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Early Social Isolation Found to Be Linked to Cocaine Addiction

Millions of people are affected by drug addiction, with the damages inflicted not only on the individuals abusing drugs but also those around them. Substance abuse can cause countless problems such as psychological and emotional difficulties as well as irreversible health issues.

Drug use can be triggered by a lot of things including peer pressure. In some animals however, it can also be caused by a stressful event early in life. One good example is social isolation. A new research was conducted to analyze how social isolation influences an animal’s response to cocaine.

Entitled, Social Isolation during Perinatal Development Alters the Behavioral Response to Cocaine in Juvenile Rats, the study was conducted by Nicole Carreras, Natasha Lugo-Escobar and Annabell C. Segarra of the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine. The researchers presented the findings of their study at the 122nd Annual Meeting of the American Physiological Society, part of the Experimental Biology 2009 scientific conference held this month in New Orleans.

Drug abuse has been found to work on the brain’s reward center. This region is associated with regulating pleasure as well as the psycho-stimulant effects of cocaine and other similar substances. Stress can enhance drug seeking behaviour and, in turn, its psycho-stimulant effects.

The study used rats as they are known social animals. Isolation during various stages of development (from prenatal to adolescence) was employed as a stressor to look into the link between stress and the animal’s susceptibility to the negative effects of cocaine abuse. At 21 days, the rats were weaned from their mothers. The researchers also tested them for psycho-stimulant response to cocaine as well as for sensitization.

Sensitization is manifested by the increased response to consistent amounts of drug over a specific duration. Half of the rats from all the groups were injected with saline with the other half getting cocaine injections for five days. They were then subjected to a seven-day drug-free period.

The study found that “rats that were isolated during all three developmental periods showed a higher locomotor response to cocaine.” It also found that the neonatal period is most susceptible to isolation stress particularly in male rats.

The researchers conclude that early isolation can alter the brain’s sensitivity to drugs such as cocaine. Animals become more sensitive to the effects of the drug when they were isolated in their youth.

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