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UT Researchers Explore New Treatment Options


HOUSTON—(May 2008)—Researchers at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston are studying a number of medications that may help restore the fragile balance of chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain destroyed by cocaine abuse, making recovery more possible.

“With chronic cocaine use, there are changes in the brain that affect neurotransmitters that are responsible for impulsivity and decision making,” said F. Gerard Moeller, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the medical school. “If we can restore the balance of the neurotransmitters back to the way it was before the cocaine, then other therapies such as behavioral therapy will work better.”

Cocaine is a highly addictive drug. It creates feelings of euphoria and energy, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and can lead to heart attacks, respiratory failure, strokes, seizures and sudden death. Large amounts can cause bizarre and violent behavior. Over time, the euphoric effects will lessen and the user will use higher levels of the drug, which then increases the detrimental effects, including potential brain damage.

Cocaine abuse affects, among other neurotransmitters, serotonin, responsible for sleep, mood, appetite and impulse control; and dopamine, which controls responses to rewards and decision-making.

In 2006, 6 million Americans age 12 and older had abused cocaine, the NIDA reported. Currently, there are no approved medications to treat cocaine abuse.

Moeller said the UT Houston Substance Abuse Research Medication Development Center, funded with $10 million, five-year grant from the NIDA, is currently studying medications thought to act on serotonin and dopamine systems.

In addition, he said, the center is on the cusp of having access to new medications to study. Those include a drug that is an adenosine receptor antagonist currently being developed to treat Parkinson’s Disease.

“We are looking at a drug that binds to the adenosine receptor. This receptor gets physically attached to dopamine and controls the effect of the dopamine receptor,” Moeller said. “We’ll see if this helps with cognitive problems cocaine abusers have. Cocaine abusers make bad decisions because they respond to the short-term reward of taking the drug instead of long-term reward of something like keeping their jobs or their families.”

As the principal investigator of the human clinical trials that are part a new four-year, $3.4 million grant awarded to The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Moeller will also be studying new drugs that UTMB researchers have found valuable in rodent studies.

“We are looking at promising medications now, as well as new ones that will be coming down the pipeline,” Moeller said. “This places us as one of the top centers in the world developing new treatments for cocaine dependency.”


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