This Week in Research: Cocaine Addiction and Early Humans

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Not all learning is good:  according to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, cocaine addiction — one of the most powerful drug addictions out there — relies on a particular protein that’s also linked to learning.

Here’s the scientific explanation for how drug addiction happens:  ingesting cocaine triggers the release of dopamine, the so-called pleasure molecule. Various complicated brain processes ensue, including the learning-related protein which essentially forges new brain pathways in response to the drug. In other words, the brain is being rewired to want more.  Re-wiring the brain to overcome these isn’t always easy, and finding a treatment center that understands this concept even more difficult, as providers at the Bow Creek rehab center review can attest to.

This finding came about because of an accidental discovery by a European research team back in 2001. Those scientists found that deleting a particular protein complex in the brain of mice made them unresponsive to cocaine. “That finding came out of the blue,” said Hopkins neuroscientist Paul Worley. “I never would have thought this type of protein was linked to dopamine and addiction, because the functions for it that we knew about up to that point were completely unrelated. That’s what scientists love: when you’re pretty sure something is right, but you don’t have a clue why.”

Worley’s team decided to explore the finding more thoroughly; ultimately, they were able to identify the process of how “cocaine exposure can co-opt normal mechanisms of learning to induce addiction,” according to Worley. The findings might help future researchers come up with potential drug-addiction treatment, the team hopes.


Johns Hopkins Assistant Professor Naomi Levin is racking in the accolades:  in 2011 she won the Subaru Outstanding Woman in Science Award; this year, she took home the Geological Society of America’s Young Scientist Award (and $10,000).

Levin’s research looks at early hominids in East Africa — some of our most ancient human ancestors — and their landscapes, trying to figure out how past climate change impacted interactions between mammals and their food sources.

Levin and her team have found that early hominids ate fish, turtles, and crocodiles; their protein-heavy diet may have helped them develop big brains, which in turn helped us become the humans we are today. Last year, she was part of a team that discovered a skeleton of a foot dating from 3-4 million years ago. Using this foot, Levin is studying how our ancestors learned to walk upright.

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