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Cocaine withdrawal explained

Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have discovered the cause of cocaine withdrawal.

The study shows that signalling cells produce a molecule called 'cannabinoid receptor 1' or 'CB1'. This molecule regulates communication between nerve cells that control things like memory, motor control, perception, mood and appetite.

Bradley Winters, the lead author of the paper and a doctor at WSU, said the CB1 perform like breaks. They help to slow down activity in the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which deals with emotion and motivation.

"Cocaine causes profound cellular changes in the nucleus accumbens, but no-one has ever looked at this type of cell, and these cells are important because they help organise the output" says Winters.

The study shows that cocaine stimulates the CB1 cells which is like pulling the handbrake in a car. The metaphor goes something like this. When an addict takes cocaine, they are stepping on the accelerator. Their brain is getting the maximum amount of stimulation possible. At the same time, the cocaine excites the CB1 cells which causes them to slam on the proverbial mental handbrake. Unfortunately, the CB1 cells stay excited, so even after the cocaine is gone, the mental handbrake stays on.

Going down a steep hill

"As you do cocaine, it speeds everything up, pushing you to a highly rewarding emotional state" says Winters. "It is kind of like going down a steep hill so you have to start riding that brake really hard. But then after the cocaine wears off and the hill levels out, you're still riding that brake just as hard. Now you're going down a regular, low-grade hill but you're going at two mph because your foot is still jammed on the brake."

Once the cocaine has worn off, an addict feels unmotivated and emotionally drained.

"That state is like 'I feel terrible and I don't want to do anything,'" says Winters. "You have the high and the crashing low, and this low that you feel is what brings you back to the drug because you want to feel better and the drug is the only thing you feel motivation for."

This is very exciting news for the addiction community as it could lead to a new treatment for cocaine addiction.

While there are currently several vaccines in development to help cocaine addicts, there is much less available to treat the symptoms of withdrawal. If this new research does lead to a form of treatment, it could be a new way for doctors and other addiction treatment centres to handle cocaine dependency.

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