George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, discussed the neuroscience of chronic drug use at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. His basic message was that chronic drug use is associated with A) loss of the reward value of the drug and B) a progressive increase in dysphoria and stress when off the drug. Both factors drive craving and drug seeking.
Access to high as opposed to moderate doses of a drug lead to an escalation in drug intake, and associated persistent increases in withdrawal dysphoria, which Koob called “the dark side.”
Koob explained that a month of detoxification is not sufficient, and that people quitting a drug need more time to let dopamine increase and to let levels of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), which drives the anxiety and dysphoria of withdrawal, normalize. He stressed that for people addicted to opiates, it is important to taper levels of the drug to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
In addition to CRF, dynorphin also plays a role in chronic drug abuse. This opiate peptide acts at kappa opiate receptors and is associated with anxiety, dysphoria, and psychosis as opposed to morphine, which acts at mu opiate receptors and is associated with euphoria and decreased pain. Koob found that administration of the kappa opiate antagonist norbinaltorphimine (nor-BNI) blocks dose escalation of methamphetamine and brings abstinence-related compulsive drug seeking back to baseline.
At the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Bruce McEwen, professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University, gave an overview of stress’s effect on the brain. He explained that “chronic stress makes you stupid,” and said that while one can compensate for the effects of chronic stress, one cannot reverse them.
Short-term stress can be helpful, increasing cortisol, with generally positive effects. When stress lasts longer, the chronic increase in cortisol starts to cause problems: impaired memory, endangered neurons, decreased bone and muscle, and metabolic abnormalities.
McEwen said that chronic stress shrinks the dendrites in the medial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. A healthy prefrontal cortex is necessary for new learning and memory.
Chronic stress also enlarges the orbital frontal cortex and the amygdala. An oversized orbital frontal cortex can induce habits, making a person susceptible to repetitive thinking and obsessions, addictions, or other compulsive behavior. An oversized amygdala can provoke fear and anxiety.
Editor’s Note: Stress can make people more susceptible to substance abuse, which in turn leads to losses in cortical control.
Many people suffer problems with mental functioning after an apparent concussion (otherwise known as mild traumatic brain injury, or mTBI) that does not show abnormalities on traditional brain imaging measures such as the MRI. New technology called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) shows that the integrity of white matter tracts may be disturbed by concussions. White matter comprises parts of the brain where myelin wraps around axons, as opposed to grey matter, which reflects the presence of neuronal cell bodies.
In a longitudinal study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, Vigneswaran Veeramuthu and colleagues compared 61 people with an mTBI to 19 healthy controls. The mTBI participants had their neuropsychological faculties assessed an average of 4.35 hours after their trauma, and participated in DTI scans an average of 10 hours after the trauma. Both the neuropsychological assessment and the DTI scan were repeated six months later. When the acute and follow-up assessments were compared to the same assessments in control participants, the two groups showed differences in numerous white matter tracts at the six-month mark. There was also an association between the degree of abnormality observed on the DTI scans and decrements in performance on the tests of neuropsychological functioning both immediately after the trauma and six months later.
The researchers concluded that their results “provide new evidence for the use of DTI as an imaging biomarker and indicator of [white matter] damage occurring in the context of mTBI, and [the results] underscore the dynamic nature of brain injury and possible biological basis of chronic neurocognitive alterations.”
Editor’s Note: People should be aware of these findings, which confirm earlier studies, and begin rehabilitative treatment as soon as possible after a concussion. New research should target white matter tract changes, with the goal of secondary prevention, i.e. limiting damage to the brain after a traumatic injury has occurred. There are several promising drugs that can prevent damage if administered immediately after an mTBI, including the antioxidant supplement N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which has shown promise in preliminary clinical and laboratory studies, and many others, including lithium and valproate, as reported by De-Maw Chuang and this editor Robert M. Post in a 2015 article in the Journal of Neurology and Stroke titled “Preventing the Sequelae of Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injury.”
5-HT7 is a type of receptor activated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. Some of the most potent effects of lurasidone (Latuda), an atypical antipsychotic with antidepressant effects in bipolar depression, and vortioxetine (Brintellix), a unique antidepressant for unipolar depression that also has positive effects on cognition, occur through the blockade of 5-HT7 receptors. The atypical antipsychotics aripiprazole and sulpiride also act on 5-HT7 receptors.
Researcher Agnieszka Nikiforuk summarized the research to date on 5-HT7 receptors in the journal CNS Drugs in 2015.
The receptors play a role in regulating sleep and circadian rhythms, which may explain why drugs that target them can be helpful in depression. Drugs that target 5-HT7 receptors have also improved learning and memory.
One subject of research into 5-HT7 receptors is whether better results come from blocking the receptors or stimulating them.
Blockade of 5-HT7 receptors has improved depression-like symptoms in animals and enhances the effects of sub-therapeutic doses of antidepressants. In other animal studies, stimulation of the receptors has appeared promising for the prevention of age-related cognitive decline.
Genetic variation in L-type calcium channel genes have been linked to bipolar disorder. Since calcium plays an important role in circadian rhythms, abnormalities in the calcium channel in bipolar disorder could explain some of the circadian rhythm disturbances patients with bipolar disorder exhibit. New research by Michael McCarthy and colleagues shows that calcium channels in general, and the gene CACNA1C in particular, affect signaling pathways that regulate circadian rhythms in both human and animal cells. The researchers also found that calcium channels affected how lithium changes circadian rhythms, suggesting a mechanism by which the treatment may work. They suggest that drugs that affect the L-type calcium channel may be promising treatments for bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: The L-type calcium channel blocker nimodipine has had antidepressant, antimanic, and anticycling effects in some patients with bipolar disorder in small studies both by Peggy Pazzaglia and colleagues (including this author Robert Post) and a larger randomized study by Haroon R. Chaudhry.
The clinical effects of nimodipine results thus align with studies linking the CACNA1C gene to bipolar illness and its early onset, increased expression of the gene in the brain of bipolar patients in autopsy studies, increased levels of calcium in white cells of bipolar patients, and a variety of other neurobiological phenomena observed in normal controls carrying the risk gene.
The new link found between CACNA1C and circadian rhythms further links the L-type calcium channel abnormality and bipolar disorder, as well as the therapeutic effects of the L-type calcium channel blocker nimodipine. This drug deserves further study, especially in those with the genetic variation in CACNA1C that has been linked to bipolar disorder.
Both bipolar disorder and unipolar depression often begin in childhood or adolescence, but it can be difficult to distinguish the two using symptoms only. People with bipolar illness may go a decade without receiving a correct diagnosis. Researcher Jorge Almeida and colleagues recently performed a meta-analysis of previous studies to determine what neural activity is typical of children with bipolar disorder versus children with unipolar depression while processing images of facial emotion. They found that youth with bipolar disorder were more likely to show limbic hyperactivity and cortical hypoactivity during emotional face processing than youth with unipolar depression. Almeida and colleagues hope that this type of data may eventually be used to diagnose these disorders or to measure whether treatment has been successful.
Researchers hope to map out the neurocircuitry by which stress leads to compulsive drug taking. A recent study by Klaus Miczek and colleagues examined different rodents’ responses to the stress of being repeatedly placed in the cage of a larger, more aggressive rodent, developing what is known as defeat stress, a set of behaviors that mimic human depression. Mice and rats showed increases in the stress hormone corticosterone that did not diminish over repeated run-ins with a larger animal. Rodents who were exposed to this stress became sensitized to cocaine or amphetamine, showing hyperactivity that increased each time they accessed the drug (the opposite of a tolerance response). Some also “binged” on cocaine, which they were able to self-administrate by pushing a lever to receive infusions. The mice and rats that went through the social defeat showed elevated levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center. Levels were related to the severity of their stressful experience.
Later the rodents had a choice between water and a 20% alcohol solution. The researchers determined what type of stress led the rodents to consume the alcohol solution instead of the water. The maximal effect was seen in two types of mice that suffered an attack of less than five minutes that resulted in a moderate number of attack bites (30); this resulted in the mice consuming large amounts (15–30 g/kg/day) of the alcohol solution. Earlier sensitization to cocaine or amphetamine did not predict later alcohol or cocaine self-administration.
When the researchers injected the rodents with antagonists of the receptors for corticotropin-releasing factor, a hormone and neurotransmitter important in stress response, prior to each episode of social defeat, the rodents did not escalate their cocaine or alcohol self-administration, indicating that CRF plays an essential role in the process by which stress makes animals prone to using substances.
In related research by Camilla Karlsson and colleagues, IL-1R1 and TNF-1R, the receptors for two inflammatory cytokines, mediated the effects of social stress on escalated alcohol use in mice.
People and animals can rapidly learn to associate environmental stimuli with positive or negative outcomes, learning what to approach or avoid as they go through daily life. The amygdala plays a role in this type of emotional learning, which can be disrupted by mood disorders. In new research, Praneeth Namburi and colleagues determined that activity at the synapses in the basolateral amygdala reveals differences in the creation of fear memories and reward memories.
In animals trained with reward and fear conditioning tasks, photostimulation of neurons that then travel from the basolateral amygdala complex to the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s reward center) is positively reinforcing, while photostimulation of neurons that will travel from the basolateral amygdala complex to the centromedial nucleus of the amygdala causes aversion. There are genetic differences between the two types of neurons, including a difference in the gene for the neurotensin-1 receptor. The researchers found that neurotensin, a neuropeptide, modulates glutamate’s effect on neurons, causing some to project to the nucleus accumbens and some to project to the centromedial nucleus of the amygdala.
The researchers wrote that the results “provide a mechanistic explanation, on both a synaptic and circuit level, for how positive and negative associations can be rapidly formed, represented, and expressed within the amygdala.”
Editor’s Note: The amygdala’s creation of opposing outputs may provide clues to the mechanisms behind mania (involving the nucleus accumbens) and depression (involving the centromedial nucleus of the amygdala).
Cytokines are chemical messengers that send signals between immune cells and between the immune system and the central nervous system. Their levels in blood are considered a measure of inflammation, which has been implicated in depression and stress. A new study by Ghanshyam Pandey and colleagues reported increased levels of cytokines in the brains of people who committed suicide. In the prefrontal cortices of people who died by suicide, there were significantly elevated levels of the inflammatory cytokines IL-1 beta, IL-6 and TNF-alpha compared to the brains of normal controls. There were also lower levels of protein expression of the cytokine receptors IL-1R1, IL-1R2 and IL-1R antagonist (IL1RA) in the suicide brains compared to controls.
The researchers concluded that abnormalities in proinflammatory cytokines and their receptors are associated with the pathophysiology of depression and suicide. This research provides direct confirmation of the indirect measures of inflammation observed in the blood of depressed patients compared to controls.
A new technology is making it possible to view the mammalian brain’s structure and connectivity for the first time. Karl Deisseroth discussed the technology, called CLARITY, at a plenary lecture at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
The way CLARITY works is by replacing lipids in the brain with a hydrogel substance. This preserves the structure of the brain’s neural networks, leaves proteins and nucleic acids intact, but allows for observation by rendering the brain transparent. This can be done in a system as large as the entire adult mouse brain. Early attempts took a whole day, but Deisseroth eventually found a way to render a mouse’s brain transparent in a matter of minutes.
The pictures are truly amazing, allowing for the visualization of previously microscropic neurons, dendrites, axons and connections in life-sized images. Pictures and details are available at www.clarityresourcecenter.org.
Deisseroth and colleagues have used CLARITY imaging to determine where neurons fire during different social activities. By placing photosensitive fibers in selected neurons using a virally based gene insertion technique, Deisseroth and colleagues were able to selectively fire dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, part of the brain’s reward system, and thus increase or decrease the social interaction of mice by increasing or decreasing firing. The effects were selective to social interaction; the firing did not affect locomotor activity or exploration of an inanimate object.
The ventral tegmental area contains neurons that project to several locations in the brain, and Deisseroth and colleagues hoped to observe which were important to social interaction. Stimulating the ventral tegmental area to drive the medial prefrontal cortex caused anxiety in the mice and made them averse to social interaction. However, when the ventral tegmental area was used to selectively drive the nucleus accumbens, another part of the brain’s reward system, social interaction increased.
Deisseroth wanted to know if the nucleus accumbens was also involved in normal spontaneous social interactions. The researchers used a virus to insert an opsin-sensitive calcium gene that could give an ongoing readout of neural activity. (Opsin is a light-sensitive receptor found in cells in the retina.) The team found that the nucleus accumbens was implicated in social interaction with another mouse, but not in exploration of a novel object. Based on CLARITY imaging of the structure of ion channels (which are so small they cannot even be seen with an electron microscope), Deisseroth was able to selectively alter ion fluxes and turn neuronal firing on or off at will.
In the last 50 years, the brain and its billions of neurons and hundreds of trillions of synapses have gone from complete inaccessibility toward increasing clarity.