Brain institute study has genetically modified mice doing coke

The research found connections between brain chemical serotonin and cocaine addiction.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Ryan Lynch, Business Manager

While you’ve been away for the summer, an FAU researcher studied cocaine’s effects on mice on the Jupiter campus. 

No, that’s not a joke, but instead part of a new study from FAU’s Brain Institute.

Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D, the executive director of the institute, led research involving genetically modified mice injected with cocaine, according to an FAU news release on the study. He wanted to see how serotonin, a chemical produced by your nerves that controls things such as appetite, mood and sexual libido, allows certain effects of the drug to happen and not others.

Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D, executive director of FAU’s Brain Institute. Photo courtesy of FAU Division of Research.

Some background

Dopamine, a molecule that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, is a key component in cocaine’s ability to cause a high and subsequent addiction. But because its levels are much higher during cocaine’s use, it’s been difficult to understand the effect serotonin may have on the user.

And since serotonin regulates mood and produces long-lasting changes to the brain, researchers theorize that it can also lead to addiction.

Because of this, Blakely set out to study serotonin’s contribution to cocaine addiction to develop new treatments.

All this research comes on the heels of increased use of the drug in Florida. According to the Florida Medical Examiner Commission’s 2016 report on drugs in the deceased, cocaine caused the second-most overdose deaths (643) behind the opioid Fentanyl (702).

Why use genetically modified mice?

Blakely, several years ago, found that fruit fly brains are only slightly affected by cocaine.

Following this discovery, he inseminated the mice studied as embryos with a fruit fly’s DNA strand, which allowed for more resistance to the drug’s effects. In this case, the mice’s genes were “80 times less sensitive to cocaine.”

The results

Blakely’s research supports the theory that serotonin, and not just dopamine, has a direct effect on cocaine users’ brains. This means that drugs that hinder serotonin’s effects can potentially be used to treat cocaine addiction.

With this new understanding of the drug, he believes his research can help shape how addiction is treated both in Florida and across the United States.

“The development of effective treatment strategies requires a holistic understanding of drug actions, and now we can see much more clearly the serotonin-side of cocaine action,” Blakely said in the release. “We hope that our findings will stimulate research into serotonin-based therapies to treat addiction as new treatments are desperately needed.”

Legal drug deal?

To get the cocaine, Blakely said he needed both state and federal Drug Enforcement Approval (DEA) approval. He then went to a chemical supplier, only being allowed to obtain the drug once he was certified in its handling and had taken steps to document its storage and use. 

He said, “Frankly, it’s a pretty involved process. Any use of materials then falls under other protocols that we must have approved (e.g. to give to a mouse) by an institutional board.”

Ryan Lynch is the business manager of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @RyanLynchwriter.