Both cocaine and Ritalin are powerful stimulants but new research suggests that a single dose of Ritalin (methylphenidate) may actually help reset the neural pathways that become disordered due to cocaine addiction.
"These findings may also be generalizable to other types of addiction," study lead investigator Dr. Rita Goldstein told CBS News.
This could lead to a whole new type of cocaine addiction treatment centred around Ritalin.
Cocaine addiction is already a real problem in both the UK and the USA. In the UK there are an estimated 700,000 people who have used cocaine in the past year according to the Home Office. In the USA the number of people actually dependent on cocaine is a whopping 800,000 according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The reason for these high numbers may be down to the effects of cocaine. It produces a quick but very strong high which makes people feel on top of the world and often results in a temporary increase in energy. This happens because cocaine triggers the brain to release a large amount of dopamine. This chemical message floods receptors linked to pleasure and movement. The wave of pleasure this causes is what makes cocaine so exciting, but it can also trigger an addiction.
As someone uses cocaine more often, their brain releases less and less dopamine. This encourages people to take more and more cocaine to try to acquire the same original high they felt. This is due in part to the dopamine pathways in the brain becoming desegregated. In simple terms, the brains pleasure centre gets badly rewired by cocaine.
A single dose of Ritalin might fix this bad wiring job which would help return an addicts pleasure responses to normal level. That is important because after someone becomes addicted to cocaine, they may need it just to feel normal rather than to achieve a high.
The new treatment is not a fix all for cocaine addiction. Many people start using cocaine as a confidence boost or to help them forget about other problems they may have. These issues also have to be dealt with alongside the physical repercussions of cocaine use.
On the plus side, the researchers believe Ritalin may help people boost their control over the compulsive desire to use cocaine. In other words, it gives you back some control and, in a way, resets your brain to its pre-cocaine state.
There is still a great deal of research before any cocaine treatment will be available as this initial study looked at brain images rather than studying the outright effects of Ritalin on cocaine users.
The next goal for researchers is to see if their Ritalin treatment results can be sustained long term. If so, they can be combined with traditional therapies to help people better fight their addiction.