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Researchers make drug addiction find

The focus at Geneva University is on psychological addiction RSR

Researchers at Geneva University believe they have found a way to treat addiction to cocaine and possibly other hard drugs.

This content was published on April 3, 2006 - 19:00

Using a substance developed by Swiss pharmaceutical concern Roche, they have shown that the cellular changes induced by drugs can be reversed.

"Our findings certainly demonstrate that addiction is a brain disease and at least in theory open the possibility that treatment is possible," Christian Lüscher, associate professor in neuropharmacology, told swissinfo.

"The main message is that it's very difficult to treat these addictions. Now in neuroscience there may be up to 20 new ideas and this is one of them."

Lüscher and his team at the university's department of basic neurosciences found that when cocaine was administered to mice it caused pathological changes in nerve cells in the brain.

They noticed that cells in the main area of the brain targeted by addictive drugs became calcium permeable for several days. Calcium is one of the key messengers in the brain.

Within hours of the changes taking place, Lüscher said the mice showed signs of addiction.

Making progress

The team found that by administering a chemical substance developed by Roche they could reverse the process.

"When a mouse received a dose of cocaine the calcium pathways opened for four days," said Lüscher. "They shut within minutes of the substance being administered."

He added that it was not clear why this particular cell mechanism resulted in addiction and this would need further study.

Lüscher was quick to stress that it was still early days and that the research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience represented just a first step towards a possible therapeutic treatment of addiction.

This, he warned, could be up to ten years away, "if ever". According to Lüscher, developing treatments for addiction is not a priority for the pharmaceutical industry at the moment.

"The pharmaceutical industry is so far very reluctant to commit itself to this problem because it's restricted to hard drugs," he said. "But if it had a wider range it could interest them."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Key facts

According to a 2002 report by the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Drug and Alcohol Addiction:
Around 60,000 people in Switzerland use heroin and/or cocaine.
36% of men and 24% of women aged 15-24 have tried cannabis at least once.
One-third of the population over the age of 15 smokes tobacco.
Around 300,000 are said to be dependent on alcohol.

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