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Battling Cocaine: Drugs vs. Drug Addiction

A Duquesne University pharmacy professor is “fighting fire with fire” as he conducts innovative research involving drug addiction.

By examining the neuroscience of drug use and abuse, Dr. Christopher K. Surratt, head of the Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Mylan School of Pharmacy, hopes to provide answers that lead to new anti-addiction therapeutics.

“If we can design a drug that blocks the action of addictive psychostimulant drugs, like cocaine or amphetamines, without in turn carrying the potential for abuse or addiction, we may have a more effective treatment for the disease of addiction,” explained Surratt.

He has been investigating this complex problem since 1991 and recently received a three-year, $179,019 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue this important work.

Why is it that some people can use a drug like cocaine recreationally while others become addicted for life essentially the first time they try it? Although some individuals are indeed genetically predisposed to addiction, biological and pharmacological factors also play an important role, Surratt said.

In normal brain function, dopamine—a neurotransmitter that controls movement, motivation, emotion and pleasure—travels from one nerve cell to another, binding to a corresponding receptor, where it passes on the original chemical message. Dopamine is then either destroyed or returned to the sending neuron for recycling. Cocaine alters this normal communication between cells. As a result, dopamine accumulates in the brain pathway controlling pleasure, resulting in the euphoria commonly associated with cocaine use. What’s more, this reaction effectively “teaches” people to repeat the behavior to achieve the euphoric feeling. Thus, an addiction is born.

Surratt believes that the key to effectively treating addiction is to find a pharmacological way of blocking cocaine’s interference with normal dopamine functioning—in essence, making the brain “immune” to cocaine.

Surratt leads a research team focused on directing computational studies with cocaine and dopamine, among other agents, to find the most likely places where these chemicals would bind.

“The long-term goal,” he said, “is to find—or create—a pharmacological therapy to treat drug addiction.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.