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We know that abusing drugs makes changes to our brains. A large part of the reason why people get addicted is that drugs affect the parts of our brains that have to do with pleasure and reward, making us seek out those feelings by using increasingly larger amounts of drugs. One of the reasons why it can be so difficult for people to successfully stop abusing drugs is that they remain vulnerable to relapse. Now, researchers from the University of Buffalo are looking at the molecular changes that occur in the brain when a person uses cocaine and how that knowledge could possibly reduce relapse or drug-seeking behaviors during withdrawal.

Published in July in Biological Psychiatry, the study sought to better understand drug addiction in order to reduce the occurrence of relapse. By seeing what happens in the brain during withdrawal, they hoped to understand what exactly maintains the risk of relapse. The researchers focused on a class of proteins called E3 ubiquitin ligases. Ubiquitination is essentially a modification of proteins that is necessary for many cellular processes, including protein degradation. Protein degradation might sound like a bad thing, but it’s actually an important part of cellular metabolism, or all the chemical changes that take place within the cells in your body. When you digest food, for example, cellular metabolism releases energy from nutrients. Protein degradation regulates things like cell growth and division, DNA repair, and immune and stress responses. E3 ubiquitin ligases change when there is disease in the body, and they’ve been previously studied for their potential to treat diseases.

The particular protein the researchers looked at is called Smurf1, short for Smad ubiquitinylation regulatory factor 1. They believed that this protein, and the other proteins that it interacts with, were used by cells to maintain vulnerability to relapse. They found that cocaine addiction in animals caused a decrease in Smurf1 and that after addiction, when the animals were deprived of cocaine and going through the withdrawal process, there was a reduction in Smurf1 protein. They then theorized that if they could increase Smurf1, they might make the animals less vulnerable to relapse and reduce cocaine-seeking behavior. They used gene therapy to increase the amount of Smurf1 after the lab animals had been exposed to cocaine, and they found that it did, in fact, reduce drug-seeking behaviors.

Relapse is currently not well understood, despite playing such a large role in the struggles of people with substance use disorders. By revealing the neurobiological mechanisms behind relapse, this study represented an important step forward. The researchers’ next step is to conduct more studies on the role of Smurf1 in addiction in the hopes that it will someday lead to an intervention for drug addiction.

If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.