Genetic Solution for Opioid Addiction
In the U.S., opioid addiction and overdose deaths have steadily increased since 2010.
This sizable increase in opioid use is known as the opioid epidemic.
It is affecting all parts of America and continues to be a deadly problem in many communities.
Opioid addiction is an extremely difficult substance to recover from.
However, recovery from addiction to opioids is possible with proper treatment and support.
On August 15th of this year, Science, a peer-reviewed academic journal, published research from the Scripps Research Institute, a Florida-based center, and the University of Kansas.
The research found a potential discovery in genetics and opioid addiction.
The research implicates that the clinicians may have discovered a genetic solution to treat and prevent opioid addiction by decreasing the addictiveness of prescription opioids.
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What are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of psychoactive substances that provide pain relief.
Some opioids are prescribed by a physician to relieve moderate to severe pain and to relieve symptoms of a severe cough.
Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain. It can also bind to the spinal cord, stomach, and other parts of the body. The opioid receptors then block signals from the brain to the body and release a great amount of dopamine.
Short-term effects include increased pain tolerance, euphoria, drowsiness, calmness, nausea, constipation, and slowed breathing. Long-term effects include brain damage, liver damage, and coma. It can also lead to death.
Opioids are an extremely hard drug to stop using, especially when it is abused. The withdrawal symptoms of opioid addiction are intensely uncomfortable and painful, which compels an individual to avoid these unpleasant symptoms by continuing to use the drug in order to feel “normal”.
Commonly used opioids include:
- Prescription pain medications such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Codeine
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The Opioid Epidemic
The opioid epidemic is now the number one cause of preventable and accidental deaths in the U.S.
Approximately, 40,000 people die each year from an opioid-related overdose.
This is equivalent to 115 deaths from opioids per day. Opioid drugs include substances such as heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, fentanyl, and morphine. Opioid addiction does not only target one demographic but rather it is prevalent among the entirety of the population.
This includes urban, rural, and upper-class communities, teenagers, veterans, and people with preexisting mental health conditions. The opioid epidemic does not only affect the individual using opioids, but it also detrimentally affects all of the individual’s loved ones.
There are a plethora of reasons as to why an individual decides to use opioids. A common trend among prescription opioid abuse and addiction is how an individual develops dependency. Often, an individual has been prescribed an opioid medication such as hydrocodone or oxycodone to treat moderate to severe pain.
However, opioids carry a high potential for dependency due to the powerful recreational effects it produces in the body. Tolerance is easily developed, which causes the individual to use more than his or her prescribed dosage. This leads to opioid addiction.
The Neurobiology of Opioids
Opioids are highly addictive; the reason for this is because of the way opioids work in the brain, and how it eventually alters brain chemistry, resulting in brain damage.
During the early stages of opioid abuse, the compulsion to consume the drug increases due to tolerance and physical and psychological dependence. When opioids are consumed, it enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain. It then binds to the specialized proteins mu-opioid receptors, which are located on the surfaces of brain cells sensitive and susceptible to opioids.
When these chemicals are linked, stimulation of the biochemical brain activity occurs, which produces feelings of intense pleasure and euphoria, as well as reduces pain.
Opioids also release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that dictates the user’s desire to keep ingesting the drug, to maintain pleasure, and to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Prolonged use of opioids on its own will result in brain damage.
Researching A Genetic Solution for Opioid Addiction
The publication in Science has provided a new pathway and viewpoint regarding opioid addiction treatment and prevention. The study was conducted by using nematode worms as a subject and mutating over 900 of their genes.
This method was performed in order to accurately discern which genes are responsible for opioid sensitivity.
The study examined the mu-opioid receptors of the nematodes, which are found naturally in humans and various mammals.
These receptors are responsible for allowing opioids to manifest their effects in the central nervous system.
Firstly, the researchers altered the nematodes’ DNA that expresses their mu-opioid receptors (MOR).
This resulted in the nematodes responding to the effects of morphine, an opioid medication commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain.
The mutation of the nematodes’ gene, FRPR-13, caused the nematodes to not react as noticeably to the effects of morphine. The FRPR-13 gene exists in mammals and is the primary catalyst in the production of GPR139, a protein that inhibits mu-opioid receptor activity.
The study then used mice as the subject in place of nematodes. The researchers altered the mice DNA in order to activate GPR139 production. This resulted in the mice ceasing morphine use.
Researchers concluded that altering the production of the GPR139 protein has the potential to decrease or cease morphine use, either by genetically becoming immune to the addictive properties or simply losing interest in the effects of the opioid.
After coming to this conclusion, the researchers coded the DNA in other mice to inhibit GPR139 production. This resulted in the increased effectiveness of morphine in terms of its painkilling properties.
However, the mice experienced minimal severity in withdrawal symptoms after prolonged use.
Research Application in Opioid Addiction
The study provided a better understanding of the role of the link between genetics and opioid addiction.
One researcher of the study stated that there is much to learn about this link and further research will benefit the science of treatment and prevention of opioid addiction.
Scientists are continually researching the development of alternative painkiller medications that are effective and not as potentially addictive or lethal.
Researchers of the study firmly believe that further research specifically targeting the GPR139 production can provide useful and groundbreaking clinical application regarding preventing and treating opioid addiction.
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