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Why heroin users relapse: Opioid reduces levels of protein that helps brain form synapses

Why heroin users relapse: Study finds the opioid reduces levels of a protein that helps the brain’s ability form synapses

  •  Between 40% and 60% of people recovering from drug addiction relapse
  • When people use heroin, the drug reduces levels of a protein in the brain
  • The protein, drebrin, is necessary for the brain to form and maintain synapses
  • Reductions of this protein occur in the brain’s pleasure-seeking and reward pathways, which causes relapse

Scientists believe they have discovered why former heroin users relapse, which could a game-changer in battling America’s growing opioid epidemic.

A new study has found that heroin reduces levels of a protein necessary for the brain to form and maintain synapses.  

Reductions of this protein, known as drebrin, occur in the brain’s pleasure-seeking and reward pathways, and lead addicts to want to start using again. 

The team, from the University of Buffalo (UB) in New York, says the findings could eventually lead to medication-based therapies that target drebrin levels to prevent relapse.

A new study from the University of Buffalo has found that when heroin users inject the drug, it reduces levels of a protein called drebrin in a part of the brain that plays a key role in the reward circuit (file image)

Prescription opioids and illicit drugs have become incredibly pervasive throughout the US, and things are only getting worse.

Treatments for those recovering from addiction include medications like methadone and buprenorphine – which help people reduce or quit their use of heroin or other opiates – and psychosocial and medical support services

Of those struggling to recover, between 40 percent and 60 percent of people relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Senior author Dr David Dietz, an associate professor at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, told that few studies have examined the molecular mechanisms of heroin relapse.

‘I’m glad and grateful we have methadone, but we wanted to see the differences in the addicted and non-addicted brain,’ he said.

‘My lab is very passionate about understanding what changes in the brain leads to relapse. I’m curious in finding out what’s wrong in the brain.’

The protein, drebrin, became the interest of researchers because reduced levels have been implicated in age-related brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

‘Since drebrin is responsible for developing and maintaining synapses, we wondered if it was also involved in addiction to drugs of abuse, ultimately leading to relapse,’ said Dr Dietz.  

For the study, published in Nature Communications, the team exposed rodents to heroin.

They found that levels of drebrin were reduced in the rodents’ nucleus accumbens, which plays a key role in the brain’s reward circuit. 

Researchers found that opioid exposure reduced the ability of the brain to form synapses – or connections – in this region. 

‘This shows that drugs change the way brain communicates with itself,’ Dr Dietz said.

‘Restoring drebrin back to normal levels…was sufficient to reduce relapse behaviors.’  

The team say the findings could lead to future treatments that target drebrin levels to treat drug addicts and prevent relapse.

‘In the not too distant future, with all the findings, we can hopefully start to find real treatment to relieve the horrific conditions that people suffer from addiction with and break the cycle of drug-taking, relapse, drug-taking, relapse,’ said Dr Dietz.  


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