Prescription Drugs

Could a Hypertension Drug Rewire the Brains of Addicts?

A new study shows a blood pressure medication's potential to prevent relapses by erasing mental associations with alcohol and cocaine.

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Can a hypertension drug rewire the brains of addicts?
David Goehring / Flickr

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin think they've found a drug with the potential to prevent relapses for those trying to stay off booze and cocaine.

The drug, known as isradipine, is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating high blood pressure.

According to the university's website:

Today, most experts acknowledge that environmental cues—the people, places, sights and sounds an addict experiences leading up to drug use—are among the primary triggers of relapses. It was an environmental cue (a ringing bell) that caused the dogs in Ivan Pavlov's famous experiments to salivate, even when they couldn't see or smell food.

Led by Hitoshi Morikawa, associate professor of neuroscience at The University of Texas at Austin, a team of researchers trained rats to associate either a black or white room with the use of a drug. Subsequently, when the addicted rats were offered the choice of going into either room, they nearly always chose the room they associated with their addiction.

Then one day, the researchers gave the addicted rats a high dose of an antihypertensive drug called isradipine before the rats made their choices. Although rats still preferred the room they associated with their addiction on that day, they no longer showed a preference for it on subsequent days. In fact, the lack of preference persisted in the isradipine-treated group in ways that couldn't be found in a control group—suggesting the addiction memories were not just suppressed but had gone away entirely.

"The isradipine erased memories that led them to associate a certain room with cocaine or alcohol," said Morikawa.

It's important to note the research doesn't suggest isradipine "reverses" addiction (as an International Business Times article put it), but rather helps prevent relapses by reversing "the rewiring that underlies memories of addiction-associated places." The ideal use-case would be more Philip Seymour Hoffman than Chris Farley.

While some drugs on the market "have been shown to prevent people from feeling euphoria when they take an addictive drug and that might prevent them from developing an addiction," isradipine could be effective in helping people who already have a problem and want to quit. According to The University of Texas at Austin: "A treatment based on this latest research, however, would be much more effective [than euphoria-inhibiting drugs], said Morikawa, targeting the associations an addict has with the experience leading up to taking a drug."

Neuroscience journalist and Reason contributor Maia Szalavitz points out that "most addiction is driven by a need to cope with some type of problem, whether that be psychiatric disorder, childhood trauma, economic dislocation, or some mix of all three." Without addressing the underlying problem, a drug like isradipine would be of little help.

If the drug is found to be effective at preventing relapses in humans, however, it would likely be met with less resistance and regulatory interference than other drugs used to treat addiction. Since isradipine is already FDA-approved, upon finding evidence of efficacy in treating addiction, doctors could begin prescribing it right away. And because it doesn't cause a "high," abstinence-based treatment programs could be quicker to add it to their medicine cabinets.