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Should Lasers Be Used to Treat Cocaine Addiction?

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Modern lasers are being used in the medical field for all kinds of things. From surgery to cosmetic procedures, these specialized lights can work wonders on the human body. Now, a group of researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco (UCSF) have discovered that lasers – when concentrated on a special area of the brain – could actually stop cocaine addiction.

The Laser Science

For many years, scientists have known that cocaine addiction slows (or completely stops) activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that regulates impulse control and decision making. By using the technique “optogenetics,” scientists and genetic engineers were able to turn the prefrontal cortex activity on and off – like a light switch.

The study, published online by the journal Nature on April 3, 2013, was conducted using lab rats in a controlled setting. It’s important to note that both people and lab rats experience compulsive cocaine addictions in the same areas of the prefrontal cortex. By shining the laser light on a specific area of the brain, scientists were successfully able to erase a rat’s cocaine habit over and over again.

This medical breakthrough could give rise to a new type of addiction therapy, especially for people who haven’t been successful with traditional rehabilitation methods.

Will it Work on Humans?

The research community understands this is an extremely important breakthrough, even though lasers wouldn’t be used in a human version of the treatment. Instead, scientists say they can induce similar results on cocaine-addicted humans by using a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation – or TMS. While this treatment doesn’t rely on laser beams, it is able to produce the same results via an external electromagnetic field to the brain. In fact, TMS is already being used to treat symptoms of clinical depression.

“When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone,” said study researcher Antonello Bonci, scientific director of the intramural research program at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Interestingly enough, this prefrontal cortex laser treatment can go both ways. For rats that were already cocaine addicts, application of the lasers immediately switched off cocaine-seeking behaviors; for non-addicted rats, flipping that neuron switch immediately activated a cocaine addiction.

Are Lasers the Future of Addiction Treatment?

Low-level lasers are already being used in the field of addiction therapy. In fact, research has shown that use of low-energy lasers can offer a helpful adjunct treatment for both nicotine and alcohol addictions. With laser therapy now showing promise in the treatment of cocaine addiction, experts hope the specialized lights can restore activity to affected parts of the brain and help addicts kick the habit for good.

Learn more about drug addiction treatment options.

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