Brain and Body

FDA-Approved Drug for Obesity and Diabetes Could Be Used to Treat Cocaine Addiction

February 12, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit: Valerie Everett/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Innovation at its finest.

According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, cocaine ranks second place for the world’s most trafficked illegal drug. When a cocaine session or binge comes to an end, it’s followed by a crash almost immediately, during which the user will get a strong craving for more cocaine. Some of the withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, agitation, fatigue, irritability, and sometimes extreme suspicion or paranoia.

Addiction is a highly complex and subjective experience, and scientists haven’t figured out a “one cure fits all” type solution yet. However, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine just discovered a unique application for an FDA-approved drug currently used for obese and type 2 diabetic patients — a potential treatment for cocaine addiction.

The drug, sold under the trade name Byetta, is derived from a naturally occurring hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP-1, which regulates feeding behavior in the body.

SEE ALSO: Scientists Discovered How to Manipulate the Brain to Eliminate Withdrawal Symptoms

How did the researchers come up with the idea to test Byetta for cocaine addiction? Matthew Hayes and Heath Schmidt, of Nursing and Psychiatry, had previously completed a GLP-1 study comparing the consumption of “palatable food to normal chow,” or as Schmidt said — burgers and fries versus a salad.

Activating the GLP-1 receptors in a specific part of the brain resulted in a reduced intake of the burger-and-fries meal, but didn’t affect the salad consumption. Therefore, since GLP-1 regulated the intake of the craveable junk food, the researchers hypothesized it might also regulate the consumption of a craveable drug like cocaine.

It turns out the researchers’ hunch was true — in a two-and-a-half-year study of rats, they showed that by activating the GLP-1 receptors in the region of the brain that deals with reward behavior, called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the rats self-administered less cocaine.

"We're looking at what activation of GLP-1 receptors in the VTA does to the animal's self-administration of cocaine," Schmidt said in a press release. "We were able to show a nice decrease in cocaine self-administration."

This is the first time that such a role has been shown for GLP-1 in the brain, and the researchers say that GLP-1 acts physiologically similarly in rat brains and human brains.

Although human trials have yet to be completed, the fact that the drug is already FDA-approved takes one of the obstacles out of the way. The side effects of the drug are already known, and it’s been proven safe for human use.

To further investigate the role of GLP-1 in the brain, the researchers plan to next focus on the pathway it follows in the brain.

"Our interest is really to understand how chronic exposure to drugs of abuse changes the brain to produce addiction-like behaviors," said Schmidt. "It's really provocative.... We talk about the VTA and the reward circuit that drives cocaine taking. But there's also this pathway that cocaine is activating that's functioning as a 'brake' to try and stop or reduce the behavior."

The researchers still have to conduct further research, but unveiling a new treatment for cocaine addiction would be huge. Considering the fact that recent research revealed that cocaine causes brain cells to commit suicide by eating themselves, a new treatment would be welcomed with open arms.

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