Lead researchers Ashwin Mohan and Sandeep Pendyam, doctoral students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are utilizing computational models to study how the brain's chemicals and synaptic mechanisms, or connections between neurons, react to cocaine addiction.
"With cocaine addiction, addicts don't feel an urge to revolt because there is a strong connection in the brain from the decision-making center to the pleasure center, which overwhelms other normal rewards and is why they keep seeking it," Pendyam said.
"By using computational models, we're targeting the connection in the brain that latches onto the pleasure center and the parameters that maintain that process," he added.
Glutamate is the major chemical released in the synaptic connections in the brain. The right amount present determines the activity of those connections.
Using the computational model, the researchers found that in an addict's brain excessive glutamate produced in the pleasure center makes the brain's mechanisms unable to regulate themselves and creates permanent damage, making cocaine addiction a disease that is more than just a behavioral change.
"Our model showed that the glutamate transporters, a protein present around these connections that remove glutamate, are almost 40 percent less functional after chronic cocaine usage," said Mohan.
"This damage is long lasting, and there is no way for the brain to regulate itself. Thus, the brain structure in this context actually changes in cocaine addicts," Mohan added.
The researchers also found that the parameters of the brain that activate the pleasure center's connections beyond those that have been discovered must undergo alteration in order for addicts to recover.
The study is published in journal Neuroscience.