Mouse nueron, image credit Neurollero

Autism brain protein ‘plays a critical role’ in drug addiction

Scientists have found that a brain protein usually associated with autism is also involved in the development of drug addiction. The researchers say that a better understanding of how the protein works could pave the way for new drug addiction treatments.

Last year over 193,000 people in the UK were treated for drug addiction.

Research published this month in the journal Neuron shows that the protein FMRP, which is often missing in people with autism, is involved in the development of addiction related behaviours.

Professor Christopher Cowan, director of the Integrated Neurobiology Laboratory at McLean said: “Chronic exposure to drugs of abuse causes changes in the brain that could underlie the transition from casual drug use to addiction. By discovering the brain molecules that control the development of drug addiction, we hope to identify new treatment approaches.”

Regular drug use causes long term changes in the connections between brain cells. These changes are thought to contribute to the development of addiction. Dr Laura Smith and her team showed that FMRP is one of the proteins involved in this process by studying behaviour changes in mice with and without the FMRP gene. They gave daily doses of cocaine to both groups and found that the mice that could not produce FMRP showed a significantly lower degree of ‘behavioural sensitisation’ or addictive behaviour.

As well as its role in addiction, FMRP is essential for healthy brain development and function. Dr Smith summarises: “While FMRP allows individuals to learn and remember things in their environment properly, it also controls how the brain responds to cocaine and ends up strengthening drug behaviors. By better understanding FMRP’s role in this process, we may someday be able to suggest effective therapeutic options to prevent or reverse these changes.”

Image Credit Neurollero

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