Study: In Heroin Addiction, Glial Cells Play Key Roles in Regulating The Motivation For The Drug

Source: University of Buffalo

Summary: Researchers have made a novel discovery that in certain types of brain cells, drug-induced plasticity can work to reduce, rather than boost, motivation for heroin.

Scientists studying addiction know that heroin (recreational drug) and other opioids induce plasticity in brain cells. Most therapies have focused on the blocking or activating of receptors that bind the drugs. But the therapies may be effective only in the short-term and doesn’t get to the fundamental problem of what is addiction and how to prevent it, as well as prevent relapse. Not much is known about glial cells (non-neuronal cells in the context of addiction. In the addiction field, most neuroscientists focus on neurons, very rarely they have studied glial cells in psychiatric diseases. Researchers from the University of Buffalo have made a novel discovery by demonstrating an essential role of glial cells in addictive behaviors, and offers the ability to provide a new set of targets for future therapies toward the treatment of addiction. The study findings were published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Non-neuronal Cells

Credit: University at Buffalo

The paper describes how glial cells regulate both cellular and behavioral responses to heroin. The research is likely the first to investigate how opiates affect adult OPCs (oligodendrocyte precursor cells), a type of glial stem cells in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex cognitive behaviors and is the main target of addictive drugs. OPCs are cells that often become myelin, which is critical for efficient communication between neurons. To determine what was happening when genes encoding OPCs were exposed to heroin, the scientists overexpressed them in addicted laboratory animals using viral gene therapy. The result was surprising – when either of the two genes, SOX10 or BRG1, was overexpressed, the animals’ motivation to take the drug was reduced. By providing new insights into how addiction changes the brain, the research could lead to novel approaches to treatments and potential new targets besides neurons.

Assoc. Prof. David Dietz said, “Our hypothesis is that after exposure to heroin, the brain starts to upregulate OPCs in an attempt to fix the altered connectivity that occurs in the addicted states. It is possible that when we facilitated OPCs, we may have reversed some of the disconnect between the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s other reward regions.”

More Information: Jennifer A Martin et al, “A Novel Role for Oligodendrocyte Precursor Cells (OPCs) and Sox10 in Mediating Cellular and Behavioral Responses to Heroin”, Neuropsychopharmacology (2017). DOI: 10.1038/npp.2017.303

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