When it comes to illnesses such as cocaine addiction, there is no current cure. As with all addictions, a cocaine addiction is an illness of the brain that can be treated and managed but not cured. Cocaine is a very powerful drug, and it is highly addictive. Those who abuse the substance experience powerful cravings that make it almost impossible to quit. It is notoriously difficult to overcome a cocaine addiction because even years after recovery, intense cravings can cause a return to drug use.

It is the drug-seeking behaviour that many experts believe is the reason beating a cocaine addiction is so difficult. However, a team of scientists believe they may have found a specific molecule in the brain that drives addiction. They also believe that by blocking this molecule, known as hypocretin, they may be able to restrict the drug-seeking behaviour exhibited by cocaine addicts.

Could Cocaine Addiction Be Cured?

The team of scientists believe they are one step closer to a cure for cocaine addiction and have published their research in the Biological Psychiatry journal. A characteristic of cocaine addiction is the compulsion to take the drug, and it is this compulsion that prevents so many people from kicking the habit, even with help.

Nonetheless, the compulsion to use the drug could be reduced if the scientists’ theories are proved to be correct. During tests of cocaine use on rats, the team of researchers discovered that hypocretin resulted in an anxiety-like state in the animals. They believe it is this that encourages the drug user’s drug-seeking behaviour.

Professor Marisa Roberto, the co-author of the study, said that this breakthrough research could help millions of cocaine addicts. She said, “Understanding the mechanisms underlying cocaine addiction is important for identifying potential new targets for therapeutic use. The results of this study would suggest that the hypocretin system could be considered a pharmacological target, with the hopes that such a medication could be used in combination with cognitive behavioural therapies.”

Understanding Motivation to Take Drugs

While researchers know that the more drugs a person takes, the more he or she will feel compelled to take them again and again, they need more understanding of the various molecules in the brain that motivate this behaviour.

In order to design treatments for those suffering from drug addiction, it is necessary for scientists to have a clear understanding of what causes some individuals to cross the line from recreational drug use to compulsive use.

The aim of the study was to find out more about how hypocretin affects the central amygdala region of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for negative emotions and stress during drug withdrawal, so scientists wanted to concentrate on the changes that occurred when drugs were withdrawn.


During the study, scientists needed to mimic both occasional drug use and compulsive drug use among rats. Some rats were allowed to self-administer the drug for an hour each day while others were given access to cocaine for six hours a day.

On studying the changes in the brains of the rats, researchers discovered that those with access to cocaine for six hours each day experienced a sensitisation of the HCRT system. It is this that causes cocaine addicts to exhibit drug-seeking behaviour.

Continued abuse of cocaine leads to an increase in hypocretin, which then makes the activity in the central amygdala go into overdrive. When this happened, the rats became very anxious, and this anxiety led to them being motivated to seek cocaine.

Professor Roberto said that the rats’ intake of cocaine began to escalate in the same way that human cocaine addicts will feel compelled to take more of the drug.

Current Treatments for Cocaine Addiction

With the compulsion to take the drug, overcoming a cocaine addiction can be extremely difficult. Relapse rates are very high because cravings continue for a long time and can often be triggered very suddenly for no apparent reason.

In most instances, a cocaine addiction will be treated initially with a programme of detoxification. This is where the addict must stop taking the drug and allow it to leave their system. Withdrawal from cocaine can result in deep depression, and many addicts will feel desperately unhappy and fatigued because they are unable to sleep. It may take a couple of weeks for all the symptoms to subside, but cravings can last for much longer.

Current treatment for cocaine addiction includes individual counselling, group therapy, 12-step work, contingency management, motivational interviewing, and cognitive behavioural therapy. With the help of a good team of counsellors and therapists, it is possible to overcome a cocaine addiction, especially if the individual is really motivated to get clean.

Nevertheless, news that a new treatment could actually cure the illness will be welcome news for those who are currently struggling to overcome the addiction or who have tried in the past to quit but have returned to drug use.


  1.  Cure for cocaine addiction closer as scientists identify molecule in the brain which craves more of the drug (Mirror)