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UTSA biologist studies the long-term effects of cocaine use on drug abusers

Carlos Paladinik

Carlos Paladini, associate professor of biology in the UTSA Neurosciences Institute.

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(July 23, 2015) -- Why do cocaine abusers continue to take the drug and what are the long-term effects? Those are questions a UTSA researcher is hoping to answer.

Carlos Paladini, associate professor of biology in the UTSA Neurosciences Institute, has been awarded a five-year, $555,000 grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Drug Abuse to study the long-term affects of cocaine use on drug abusers.

According to Paladini, drug abusers who have taken cocaine for a long time still get a little bit of a high every time they take it. When that high ends, however, they start feeling terrible. To avoid that feeling, they take more cocaine to regain the high.

Using mouse models, Paladini’s research team will study a part of the brain known as the striatum, located in the brain’s interior regions. When cocaine reaches the brain, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released into the striatum.

As a part of the study, the mice have to perform a task where they press a lever with their paw. If they press it a certain amount of times the mice receive cocaine.

Paladini states that as cocaine is taken, the brain changes. Cocaine’s effect on the striatum is inhibitory and activity in the striatum is turned off or slowed down. Over time, Paladini hypothesizes, there is a switch in the brain and cocaine starts making the striatum even more active than it normally is.

“We think that we can artificially change a switch in the brain in which we can have animals perform behaviors for cocaine in such a way that is similar to the way that humans would act when they become really addicted to drugs,” added Paladini. “We can switch on addiction just by changing this switch in the striatum without animals having ever taken cocaine. We can also try and switch it off while the mice are taking cocaine and reduce a lot of the effects of cocaine in the brain.”

Paladini says that the brain’s dopamine system is a very powerful system because addictive drugs hijack the brain’s reward system.

To learn more, visit Carlos Paladini’s research laboratory.

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