Scientists at the University of British Columbia have genetically engineered mice that can't be tempted by cocaine, or get addicted to it.
The mice were created to have higher levels of a protein called cadherin, which helps strengthen synapses between neurons in the brain. Learning, or recalling memories, requires strong synapses. So to become addicted to cocaine, the brain needs certain synapses to be strong enough to remember that the drug feels good.
Shernaz Bamji, a professor at the school, thought adding extra cadherin would make mice more prone to becoming addicted. But the opposite ended up happening.
Even after the genetically engineered mice were given the drug repeatedly, they showed no interest in it, unlike normal mice (who really seemed to enjoy the cocaine).
The mice were placed in a cage so scientists could observe what area they preferred. The normal mice rushed to the room they associated with cocaine, while the genetically engineered mice wandered around.
“By preventing the synapses from strengthening, we prevented the mutant mice from ‘learning’ the memory of cocaine, and thus prevented them from becoming addicted," said graduate student Andrea Globa, one of the authors of the article, which was published Tuesday.
The scientists say their findings could help predict which people are more vulnerable to drug addiction, allowing them to act on that knowledge.
"Addiction is not just bad judgment, but really is more to do with our biology and our biochemistry," Bamji told NPR.
Findings could help with opioid crisis: Bamji
Bamji says the findings are key given the opioid crisis impacting Canada's western provinces.
"It's very important that these studies come out to continually remind the public that addiction is a matter of biochemistry," she told CBC News.
"If we look at it that particular way ... the way we design our policies and the way we deal with these people is going to be very different."