Promising new drug targets for cocaine addiction found

January 20, 2014

Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have identified a new molecular mechanism by which cocaine alters the brain's reward circuits and causes addiction. Published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr. Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, and colleagues, the preclinical research reveals how an abundant enzyme and synaptic gene affect a key reward circuit in the brain, changing the ways genes are expressed in the nucleus accumbens. The DNA itself does not change, but its "mark" activates or represses certain genes encoding synaptic proteins within the DNA. The marks indicate epigenetic changes—changes made by enzymes—that alter the activity of the nucleus accumbens.

In a mouse model, the research team found that chronic cocaine administration increased levels of an enzyme called PARP-1 or poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation polymerase-1. This increase in PARP-1 leads to an increase in its PAR marks at genes in the , contributing to long-term cocaine addiction. Although this is the first time PARP-1 has been linked to cocaine addiction, PARP-1 has been under investigation for cancer treatment.

"This discovery provides new leads for the development of anti-addiction medications," said the study's senior author, Eric Nestler, MD, PhD, Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Friedman Brain Institute, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Nestler said that the research team is using PARP to identify other proteins regulated by cocaine. PARP inhibitors may also prove valuable in changing cocaine's addictive power.

Kimberly Scobie, PhD, the lead investigator and postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Nestler's laboratory, underscored the value of implicating PARP-1 in mediating the brain's reward center. "It is striking that changing the level of PARP-1 alone is sufficient to influence the rewarding effects of cocaine," she said.

Next, the investigators used chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing to identify which genes are altered through the epigenetic changes induced by PARP-1. One target gene whose expression changed after chronic cocaine use was sidekick-1, a cell adhesion molecule concentrated at synapses that directs . Sidekick-1 has not been studied to date in the brain, nor has it been studied in relation to cocaine exposure. Using viral mediated gene transfer to overexpress sidekick-1 in the nucleus accumbens, investigators saw that this overexpression alone not only increased the rewarding effects of cocaine, but it also induced changes in the morphology and synaptic connections of neurons in this brain reward region.

The research opens the door to a brand new direction for therapeutics to treat . Effective drug therapies are urgently needed. National data from the US National Institute of Drug Abuse reveal that nearly 1.4 million Americans meet criteria for dependence or abuse of .

Explore further: How the brain puts the brakes on the negative impact of cocaine

More information: Essential role of poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation in cocaine action, PNAS,

Related Stories

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.