If you’ve followed the debate about addiction being a disease versus a choice, you’ve probably heard that scientists believe there is a genetic component involved. Some people are simply born predisposed to addictive behavior or are particularly vulnerable to certain types of drugs. Previously, all this meant was that if you were aware of a family history of addiction, you would know that you needed to exercise some caution. Now, however, researchers think they’ve discovered technology that might be the key to using genetics to understand addiction.
Last year at Neuroscience 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience, presenters revealed how a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR could potentially inoculate the brain against addiction. Gene editing, also called genome editing, is technology that gives scientists the power to alter an organism’s DNA. Genetic material can be changed, added, or removed. One recent approach is known as CRISPR-Cas9, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. This technology is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than any previously existing systems. It’s already been used in animals, to edit out disease-causing gene mutations.
There are some critics who have raised ethical concerns about gene editing, although that largely has to do with fears about using it to create a class of “perfect” humans.
Now, scientists are hoping to use CRISPR in a slightly different manner. Instead of using what’s called it’s “molecular scissors” to edit genes, they hope to use its ability to target genes to how a particular protein affects genes linked to addiction. This protein is called CREB (cAMP response element-binding protein), and it binds to certain DNA called cAMP response elements (CRE). Previous studies have shown that it can activate the genes involved in drug addiction.
Researchers used CRISPR to guide CREB to specific neurons in the brains of mice that had been given cocaine. They were able to essentially switch certain genes off and on, allowing them to observe the effects on the reward centers in the mouse brains. These reward centers act the same way as the ones in the human brain do – addictive drugs activate the reward pathway, causing the cells to increase the amount of dopamine released and causing feelings of pleasure, which condition us to repeat the reward-causing activity. This research has given scientists some insight into which genes CREB can turn on and how that affects the progression of drug addiction.
The hope for the future is that CRISPR could one day be used to alter the genetic interactions of CREB and short circuit the addiction process. That technology isn’t within our grasp just yet, but this research is the first step toward possibly addiction-proofing the brain.
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