Addictive cravings still detectable after death

December 21, 2016 by Johannes Angerer

A protein known as FosB in the reward centre of the brain alters in chronically ill people suffering from an addictive disorder (e.g. heroin addiction). It is genetically modified, split off and shortened. This modification under the stimulus of the drug results in the protein stability and therefore remains longer in this part of the brain than in its original form – even as much as several weeks after withdrawal of the drug. This means that a craving for the drug persists. This addictive craving is stored as a sort of "memory" function and, surprisingly, can still be detected after death. This has now been demonstrated by MedUni Vienna scientists from the Department of Forensic Medicine.

FosB is a transcription factor in the brain which, together with other molecules, is involved in so-called signal transduction (transmission of stimuli to the cells)—it conveys genetic information between the cells and also determines whether certain genes are activated or not. FosB is itself part of the activating protein AP1. Under the constant influence of drugs such as heroin, FosB turns into DeltaFosB, which is increasingly stimulated in cases of chronic use and even influences growth factors and structural changes (neuronal plasticity) in the brain – approximately in the same region where memory is formed.

Led by Monika Seltenhammer of MedUni Vienna's Department of Forensic Medicine, the study has been reported in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy. The researchers found that the effects of this chronic stimulus can even be identified post-mortem as "dependence memory." The study involved examining tissue samples from the nucleus accumbens of 15 deceased heroin addicts. Seltenhammer says, "Using highly sensitive detection methods, DeltaFosB was still detectable nine days after death." The researchers are assuming that this period will be much longer in live subjects, possibly even months.

According to the MedUni Vienna experts, these results could have future applications in the treatment and management of people with opiate dependencies and heroin addiction, particularly when it comes to drug withdrawal: "If the addictive craving persists in the brain for months, it is very important to provide protracted after-care and corresponding psychological support," says Seltenhammer. "Our results show that forensics and forensic medicine can also be of direct benefit to the living," emphasises Risser.

In a follow-on project to be conducted in collaboration with MedUni Vienna's Institute of Pharmacology and Center for Addiction Research and Science (AddRess) and, in particular, with drug and dopamine expert Harald Sitte, amongst others, the objective is now to find out whether, and, if so, how, activation of DeltaFosB can be prevented and how this highly promising starting point can be used to treat the onset of addictive behaviour.

Explore further: Geophagy—"soil-eating" as an addictive behaviour

More information: Monika H Seltenhammer et al. Accumulation of Highly Stable ΔFosB-Isoforms and Its Targets inside the Reward System of Chronic Drug Abusers - A Source of Dependence-Memory and High Relapse Rate?, Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy (2016). DOI: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000297

Related Stories

Geophagy—"soil-eating" as an addictive behaviour

December 5, 2016
Between 30 and 80 percent of people in Africa, especially women, regularly eat clayey soil – this habit is known as geophagy. They often consume between 100 and 400 g per day. "Pregnant and breast-feeding women, in particular, ...

Protein found to regulate cocaine craving after withdrawal

August 2, 2016
Neuroscientists know that cocaine addiction and withdrawal rewire the brain. But figuring out how to disrupt those changes to treat addiction requires an extremely detailed understanding of how those changes occur.

Stress hormone reduces heroin cravings

July 28, 2015
Every addiction is characterized by a strong desire for a certain addictive substance, be it nicotine, alcohol or other drug. Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland recently conducted a study on heroin addiction ...

Paradigm shift in treatment of addiction holds promise, thanks to epigenetics

May 26, 2015
One of the major challenges of cocaine addiction is the high rate of relapse after periods of withdrawal and abstinence. But new research reveals that changes in our DNA during drug withdrawal may offer promising ways of ...

Long-term brain changes persist years after drug abuse and recovery

August 18, 2015
It's known that brain changes are present in drug addicts even when they have been abstinent for a short period of time. Now new research shows that alterations persist in long-term abstinent heroin-depended individuals as ...

Scientists discover a novel opiate addiction switch in the brain

September 10, 2013
Neuroscientists at Western University (London, Canada) have made a remarkable new discovery revealing the underlying molecular process by which opiate addiction develops in the brain. Opiate addiction is largely controlled ...

Recommended for you

Concern with potential rise in super-potent cannabis concentrates

July 21, 2017
University of Queensland researchers are concerned the recent legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia may give rise to super-potent cannabis concentrates with associated harmful effects.

Findings link aldosterone with alcohol use disorder

July 18, 2017
A new study led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, demonstrates that aldosterone, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, may contribute ...

Depression among young teens linked to cannabis use at 18

July 17, 2017
A study looking at the cumulative effects of depression in youth, found that young people with chronic or severe forms of depression were at elevated risk for developing a problem with cannabis in later adolescence.

Why does prenatal alcohol exposure increase the likelihood of addiction?

July 7, 2017
One of the many negative consequences when fetuses are exposed to alcohol in the womb is an increased risk for drug addiction later in life. Neuroscientists in the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions are ...

Researchers say U.S. policies on drugs and addiction could use a dose of neuroscience

June 23, 2017
Tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses every year – around 50,000 in 2015 – and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the National Institute on Drug ...

Study provides further support for genetic factors underlying addictions

June 13, 2017
Impairment of a particular gene raises increases susceptibility to opioid addiction liability as well as vulnerability to binge eating according to a new study.


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.