A team of neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin claim to have found a way to control how high mice can get on a given amount of cocaine.
And don't worry — while that may sound like a particularly frivolous plot concocted by a team of evil scientists, the goal of the research is well-meaning.
The team, led by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Santiago Cuesta, was investigating how the gut microbiome can influence how mice and humans react to ingesting the drug.
The research, detailed in a new paper published this week in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, sheds light on a vicious feedback loop that could explain cases of substance abuse disorders — and possibly lay the groundwork for future therapeutic treatments.
In a number of experiments on mice, the researchers found that cocaine was linked to the growth of common gut bacteria, which feed on glycine, a chemical that facilitates basic brain functions.
The lower the levels of glycine in the brain, the more the mice reacted to the cocaine, exhibiting abnormal behaviors.
To test the theory, the scientists injected the mice with a genetically modified amino acid which cannot break down glycine. As a result, the behavior of mice returned to normal levels.
In other words, the amino acid could curb cocaine addiction-like behaviors — at least in animal models.
"The gut bacteria are consuming all of the glycine and the levels are decreasing systemically and in the brain," said Vanessa Sperandio, senior author, and microbiologist from the University of Wisconsin, in a statement. "It seems changing glycine overall is impacting the glutamatergic synapses that make the animals more prone to develop addiction."
It's an unorthodox approach to treating addiction, but could be intriguing — if it works in people, that is.
"Usually, for neuroscience behaviors, people are not thinking about controlling the microbiota, and microbiota studies usually don't measure behaviors, but here we show they’re connected," Cuesta added. "Our microbiome can actually modulate psychiatric or brain-related behaviors."
In short, their research could lead to new ways of treating various psychiatric disorders such as substance use by adjusting the gut microbiome and not making changes to the brain chemistry.
"I think the bridging of these communities is what's going to move the field forward, advancing beyond correlations towards causations for the different types of psychiatric disorders," Sperandio argued.
READ MORE: How gut bacteria influence the effects of cocaine in mice [Cell Press]
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