Scientists showed they could erase a rat's cocaine habit by shining a laser light on its brain. The achievement could give rise to a new therapy for people crippled by an addiction to the drug, researchers say.
For people and lab rats alike, a compulsive cocaine addiction can dull activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region thought to be important for impulse control and decision making.
In the new study, scientists used genetic engineering to transform neurons in the rats' prefrontal cortex into a switch. They implanted light-sensitive proteins called rhodopsins in the neurons that they could turn on and off with a laser light.
"When we turn on a laser light in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex, the compulsive cocaine seeking is gone," said study researcher Antonello Bonci, scientific director of the intramural research program at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). [10 Odd Facts About the Brain]
Interestingly, the treatment can go both ways. Switching those neurons off turned the non-addicted rats into coke addicts.