Research Identifies How Stress Triggers Drug Relapse

Recent research from Brown University could pave the way for new methods of treatment for those recovering from addiction. Researchers identified an exact brain region in rats where the neural steps leading to drug relapse take place, allowing them to block a crucial step in the process that leads to stress-induced relapse.

Prior research has established that acute stress can lead to drug abuse in vulnerable individuals and increase the risk of relapse in recovering addicts. But the exact way that stress triggers the neural processes leading to relapse is still not clearly understood. The Brown study provides new insights on how stress triggers drug abuse, and could lead to more effective treatments for addiction.

According to the study, stress has significant effects on plasticity of the synapses on dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the brain region where the neural activities leading to a stress-induced drug relapse take place.
Stress activates kappa opioid receptors (KORs) in the VTA, and the researchers found that by blocking the KORs, they could prevent the rats from relapsing to cocaine use while under stress.

Published this week in the journal Neuron, the study shows blocking these receptors may be a critical step in preventing stress-related drug relapses in humans, as well. The chemical used to block the receptor, “nor-BMI,” may eventually be tested on humans, according to the study’s authors.

“If we understand how kappa opioid receptor antagonists are interfering with the reinstatement of drug seeking we can target that process,” senior study author Julie Kauer said in a statement. “We’re at the point of coming to understand the processes and possible therapeutic targets. Remarkably, this has worked.”

Kauer noted that the study builds upon over a decade of research on how changes in brain synapses relate to behaviors like addiction. The advance is significant, and could accelerate progress towards a medication for those struggling to recover from addiction.

“If we can figure out how not only stress, but the whole system works, then we’ll potentially have a way to tune it down in a person who needs that,” Kauer said.

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First Step handout

A worksheet that I have used with folks.

 

First Step Worksheet: Acceptance

“We admitted we are powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The first thing is to admit powerlessness, or, in other words, to say “I can’t control my use of drugs/alcohol, or the consequences of my use of drugs/ alcohol.”

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• How have drugs placed your life, or the lives of others, in jeopardy?

What family/personal problems have you had? What legal problems have you had? What work problems have you had?

• How have you lost self-respect due to your drug use?

• How have you tried to control your use of drugs?

• What types of physical abuse have happened to you, or others, as a result of your drug use?

• Are you happy with yourself about your alcohol/drug use?

It is important to honestly look at how the consequences of our drug use have affected us.  This is “connecting the dots”.  When I use, this is what happens.  Looking back over your using history:

• What health problems have you had?

• What sexual problems have you had?

• What financial problems have you had?

Remember that “loss of control” (powerlessness) and problems (un-manageability) are symptoms of the disease of drug/alcohol dependence.  In order to recover, people have admitted their limitations and accepted that the solution is to be open to support from others (NA/AA) and to stay away from the first use, one day at a time!

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