Gene mutation ‘can make us 10 times more vulnerable to severe addiction’

A study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry reveals that a gene mutation could make us 10 times more vulnerable to severe forms of addiction.

Most neurons in the brain use one neurotransmitter (such as dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and glutamate) and respond with either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ signal. The scientists behind this research found that some neurons are ‘bilingual’, or able to use two transmitters.

In order to regulate our reward behaviours, a small population of neurons in our reward centre are able to respond with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The researchers discovered that when they shut down one of the languages (the “no”) of cholinergic neurons within the reward centre, mice showed a marked predilection for cocaine.

The study’s lead author, Salah El Mestikawy, says: ‘These discoveries are bringing about a major transformation in the field of addiction. We are beginning to decipher and understand the complex regulation of basic behaviours.’

The researchers say this explains the molecular mechanism of reward behaviour, while identifying an unsuspected target in the treatment of addiction.