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Science & Technology

Link Between Food Restriction And Drug Abuse In Brain's Pleasure Center

UT Health Science Center

San Antonio scientists say dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter that acts as the brain's pleasure center, is likely the reason that some people turn to the use of cocaine and other illicit stimulants.

Dr. Michael Beckstead, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at San Antonio’s UT Health Science Center, is the senior author of a study targeting the dopamine neurons in the brain that are involved in reward.

Beckstead said there’s an overlap between two systems. The same pathways that make us feel good when we eat could also be causing substance abuse problems. His study found that animals went for cocaine more readily when their food was restricted – because food that tastes good also stimulates dopamine.

"That's exactly the problem, in fact. Because what drugs of abuse do like alcohol and cocaine is they take over this pathway in your brain that's designed to make you enjoy food and instead they make you enjoy the drug," he said. 

Currently, no pharmacological treatment exists for psycho-stimulant abuse of cocaine and amphetamines. Beckstead hopes the study is the first step in finding a treatment for substance abuse beyond detox and behavioral therapy.