Drug abuse and addiction disrupt brain processes that govern fundamental capacities of motivation, memory, and learning. It is no wonder, then, that scientists seeking answers to addiction make discoveries that have broad implications for human development and health. As in the first NIDA Notes Innovations issue, this second in the series draws attention to some of the most original and far-reaching recent findings of NIDA-supported scientists. Among them:
- MicroRNAs, snippets of RNA that have recently been implicated in a wide range of biological processes, regulate genes linked to drug addiction (see "New Class of Regulators for Addiction Genes"). The finding opens potential avenues for new therapeutic interventions not only for addiction, but for other neuropsychiatric disorders as well.
- Short-term memories acquire long-term traction partly because the same process that originally registers experiences in the hippocampus repeats in the frontal cortex (see "Molecular Alterations of DNA Contribute to Persistence of Memory"). This work provides a new perspective on the drug-related memories that commonly trigger relapse, and it may pave the way for the development of therapies for age-related memory loss.
- Drugs of abuse can diminish new neuron formation in the adult brain (see "Disruption of Neuron Production in Adult Rats Increases Cocaine Taking"). By illuminating the determinants and consequences of the sparse but apparently critical process of adult neurogenesis, this discovery may have wide implications.
- Recently discovered "resting-state" brain circuits exert considerable influence over responses to nicotine and vulnerability to addiction (see "Resting Brain Studies Shed New Light on Vulnerabilities"). NIDA-supported scientists are spearheading two large-scale projects that will map and analyze the brain's entire complement of hitherto unappreciated resting-state circuits, which appear to shape an extensive set of individual traits and capacities, potentially including vulnerabilities to many neuropsychiatric illnesses.
- Scientists have successfully pilot tested the core components of a device for delivering transdermal medications in programmable, dynamic, finely calibrated doses over days or weeks (see "Nanotechnology Powers Smart Skin Patch"). When fully developed, the device, no bigger than a wrist watch but containing billions of carbon nanotubes, should enable physicians to ensure consistently safe and effective doses of pain and anti-addiction medications, even when patients' needs fluctuate and motivation wavers.
The findings reported here provide a glimpse of the many ways in which NIDA-supported researchers are working at the frontiers of scientific discovery. While concentrated on the goal of reducing addiction and its consequences, their insights and solutions resonate for many other contexts of living and healing.