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Could methamphetamine be part of treatment?

October 18, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Letter From the Editor

The findings of brain research informing the field's knowledge of drugs of abuse and their treatment have become one of the most fascinating aspects of covering addiction. Even amid all the study results that surface in a typical month, a mid-October news release from the University at Buffalo (using the aptly chosen “tantalizing” in the headline) couldn't help but catch the eye.

Researchers at the university's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences had published a rodent study related to methamphetamine addiction in The FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology). While this was a pre-clinical study, it offered some compelling conclusions that someday could alter the conversation about addiction treatment approaches.

The researchers focused on the circadian rhythms that are disrupted in addiction and that exacerbate risk for relapse; these are the same effects that a person taking an overseas flight might experience. They studied mice whose suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus, an area that acts as the body's master circadian clock, had been removed. As senior author Margarita Dubocovich, PhD, who chairs the medical school's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, explains, the researchers then set out to restore the disrupted rhythms. The mice normally will engage in 12 hours of activity followed by 12 hours of sleep, but without the SCN their activity was all over the place.

For two weeks, the mice were exposed to a running wheel for eight hours a day and also received a daily injection of methamphetamine. Both of these stimuli target similar reward centers involved in synchronization of rhythms, which is why the researchers believed they might prove to be effective in tandem. What they found is that the combination of exercise and drug activated a new clock that took over and reinstated the disrupted rhythms.

It is important to note that this worked only when the exercise and methamphetamine were used together, not with one in isolation. As study co-author Oliver Rawashdeh, PhD, explained in the news release, “By using the principles of learning and memory, we may have rewired the brain's circuitry, activating a new clock—a form of plasticity—using the same stimulus that caused addiction in the first place, methamphetamine. This was necessary in order to transfer the euphoric and pleasurable characteristics associated with the drug over to a healthy stimulus—exercise.”

In the next stage of the research, Dubocovich tells me, the team will more closely examine the process seen in the first study, to determine where this new clock is located in the brain and which receptors and neurotransmitters are involved.

If this research eventually progresses to human trials, the idea will be to try to improve the effectiveness of treatment by first administering the drug of abuse and exercise together, then weaning the person off the drug and maintaining the exercise. In essence, the researchers will be out to show that it is possible to use methamphetamine to treat meth addiction, which severely disrupts circadian rhythms and for which there are no approved medication treatments. Dubocovich says the drug would have to be administered in the trial under a physician's close supervision, and patient recruitment for such a study could prove somewhat challenging as well.

The hope would be that an answer to one of the most troubling addictions to treat might be found, surprisingly enough, with the offending drug itself. This research bears watching.