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Understanding P addiction

11 Aug, 2014

Methamphetamine, aka P, the most common member of the amphetamine family, can alter the brain in hitherto unknown ways according to new PhD research from a recent Victoria University of Wellington graduate, Dr Peter Bosch.

Dr Bosch was awarded his PhD in Biomedical Science for his research into how the brain’s natural reward pathways are strongly stimulated following exposure to methamphetamine.

In a press release from the university, Dr Bosch explained the brain reward system is a “group of cells that send signals when we do anything rewarding, such as exercising, eating food or drinking water. Drugs of addiction – like amphetamines or cocaine – target the reward system, activating that particular part of the brain.”

None of this is new, but what Dr Bosch did discover were previously undescribed genetic and protein changes induced by the drug – the type of knowledge that is needed to develop new effective drug-based therapies for addiction treatment, particularly in dealing with the problem of relapses, which are a major challenge with the highly addictive drug.

New Zealanders reportedly have one of the highest rates of methamphetamine use in the world. TheDrug Use in New Zealand: 2007/08 New Zealand Alcohol and Drug Use Surveyreported that 2.1% of New Zealanders aged 16–64 used amphetamines – just over 55 000 people. According to some media reports, the rate of amphetamine use has dropped since this last survey. However, crime statistics from 2012 show a sharp spike in arrests for “supplying, administrating, and dealing amphetamine and methamphetamine”.

“When it came to putting together my PhD project, I really wanted it to have a New Zealand angle. There’s not a huge amount of research on methamphetamine compared to other drugs of abuse, like cocaine,” says Dr Bosch.

In particular, drug-induced genetic and cellular modifications were not well understood. To elucidate these modifications, Dr Bosch studied thousands of genes and proteins within the reward system to identify what was altered following exposure to methamphetamine.

“We tried to study as many genes and proteins as we could and then see what changed the most significantly following methamphetamine. We saw a number of genes and proteins that had previously been associated with the drug but also ones that hadn’t been associated with it before.”

Dr Bosch says the biggest trouble for researchers is trying to prevent someone from relapsing, which occurs in 80–90% of cases for psycho-stimulant addictions.

There’s something going on in terms of how the brain has responded to the drug that sets the brain up to relapse at another stage in life. By identifying the genes that have been altered, we can explore possible reasons for why some people are more vulnerable to drug relapses.

To further the work in understanding P addiction, Dr Bosch is now putting together projects for new honours and master’s students to carry out.

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