Scientists at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center have recently uncovered a link between the brain’s reward system and main stress signal that is a potential target for more successful alcohol and drug rehab treatments, particular of relapse prevention.
In their report published in the December 17 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers stated that the brain’s main reward signal, which is dopamine, functions through corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), the main stress signal, to increase brain activity in a region associated addiction relapse. This brain region was identified as the extended amygdala, a region of the brain that anatomically extends between the stress and reward systems of the brain. In addition, the researcher noted that the CRF within the extended amygdala is highly involved in stress-induced addiction relapse.
The group’s findings are supported by previous studies showing that alcohol and illicit drugs increase dopamine both in the reward system of the brain and in the extended amygada. The current study, however, is the first of its kind to reveal the effects of increased dopamine in the said area.
This part of the research was led by Dr. Thomas Kash, whose experiment using an “in vitro brain slice system” found that dopamine in the extended amygdala increased the level of excitatory glutamate signaling in the said area. Further to this, Dr. Kash discovered that dopamine actually utilized CRF signaling pull off the described effect. Dr. Kash’s experiment was confirmed by that of his colleague’s who found the same dopamine-CRF link in an animal model experiment.
According to lead researcher Danny Winder, intake of drug or alcohol increases dopamine levels in the extended amygdala and then engages CRF signaling in the said region. “That’s now activating portions of this brain structure, which then communicate with the core addiction reward circuitry. We believe the dopamine-CRF signaling may be a likely initial step in promoting reinstatement behavior,” the researcher added.
Winder further explained that a valuable therapy involving the silencing of CRF cells can be formulated if the mechanisms behind the dopamine-CRF link are honed and the key population of the said cells is indentified. This type of therapy according to him would not only help addicts through the withdrawal phase of recovery but also reduce the chances of them falling into relapse.
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