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Brain Science and Heroin

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A new study presented in San Diego at the meeting of the Society of Neuroscience shows some surprising changes in how the heroin-addicted brain functions. The presentation showed that addiction was just one result of chronic heroin use. The drug also alters the brain in fundamental ways and these changes might actually lead to addiction, rather than result from it.

The changes happen at the level of DNA expression, so that even those without an inherent propensity to become addicts might experience those changes. The process falls under epigenetics, small changes in DNA structure that don’t change the nucleotide sequence, but do modify gene expression. Epigenetics gives a mechanism for the envioronment to “feed back” to the DNA someone is born with.

The study itself used brains from cadavars – comparing heroin addicted and normal brains and finding that the number of years on the drug showed up in their tests. In other words, by examining the brain tissue, you could estimate how long an addict had been using heroin. That’s a pretty clear result.

A press release about the San Diego event quoted one of the study’s authors: "Our study addresses a critical gap in our knowledge about heroin addiction because we cannot often directly study the brains of addicted humans," said Yasmin Hurd, "Our results provide important insights into how human brains change in response to long-term heroin use, and give us the knowledge to help treat this dangerous disease."

The critical next step would be to interfere with the process in humans so that even chronic use of heroin wouldn’t lead to harmful brain changes. There would still be a physical addiction, but the crippling psychological addiction might be thwarted in such a way. Unlike other genetic research, which identifies inborn risk, this kind of research shows what can happen during the course of an addiction, and modifications to DNA expression in the brain ought to work both ways, allowing for interventions.

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