Researchers at UC San Francisco have managed to use laser lights as a means of eradicating addictive behaviors in rats.

They targeted light in the prelimbic region of the brain in rats who were addicted to cocaine. They found that after exposure to the laser lights the rats demonstrated a significant reduction in addictive behavior.

The lead author of the study, Antonello Bonci, MD, scientific director of the intramural research program at the NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said: "When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone."

The study, published in Nature, highlights the role that the prefrontal cortex has in cocaine addiction and could help drive further testing in humans.

As one of the major health concerns in the U.S., cocaine addiction affects close to 1.2 million Americans and is responsible for a total of 482,188 emergency room visits every year.

One of the main problems with cocaine addiction is that people start taking the drug compulsively and lose the ability to function without it. About 80 percent of people who try to kick their cocaine addiction end up experiencing a relapse within six months.

There's been a lot of focus on cocaine addiction, recently scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee discovered a new potential means of developing a first-ever pharmacological treatment for cocaine addiction.

Using lasers to eliminate addiction

Rats that were addicted to cocaine expressed low patterns of activity in their prefrontal cortex region of the brain - responsible for decision-making and behavioral flexibility.

Previous studies conducted on humans compulsively addicted to cocaine have found a similar pattern of low activity in this area of the brain as well.

The researchers measured the impact that laser light had on brain activity and addiction using a technique called optogenetics.

Through the use of genetic engineering they inserted proteins called rhodopsins into neurons located in the prefrontal cortex of rats. By activating this region of the brain with the laser they were able to turn the nerve cells on and off.

They observed that after turning the cells on there was a significant reduction in addictive behaviors in the rats compared to when the cells were turned off.

Among humans, the therapy would likely not involve the use of lasers, but instead the use of electromagnetic stimulation outside the scalp, with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The authors concluded in an Abstract in the same journal:

"Our results show a marked reduction in prelimbic cortex excitability in compulsive cocaine-seeking rats, and that in vivo optogenetic prelimbic cortex stimulation decreased compulsive drug-seeking behaviours. Thus, targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex could serve as a promising therapy for treating compulsive drug use."

Written by Joseph Nordqvist