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Morphine vs. Cocaine: How these Addictive Drugs Differ in the Brain

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morphine and cocaine

Morphine and Cocaine

Some people may think that addictive drugs, morphine, and cocaine, could not be more different. Morphine is an opiate, a pain reliever, and tends to make you more relaxed. Cocaine is well known for its energy-increasing behavior. According to research, though, they both act on the same mechanism in the brain. Both affect how dopamine is processed, and this cascade is what results in addictive behavior.
However, morphine impacts the body differently in the reward system of the brain. The research investigated precisely how and why opioids cause addiction and how to combat the situation effectively. New drugs and procedures can specifically target the mechanism that makes these drugs so overwhelmingly addictive by studying how they affect brain chemistry.

The Brain Chemistry of Drug Addiction

To clearly understand how morphine and cocaine differ, it is necessary to comprehend how they affect brain chemistry. Your brain is made up of cells called neurons. Each neuron talks to the neurons around it by releasing chemical mediators known as neurotransmitters. Some common neurotransmitters are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These chemicals are secreted into the gap between neurons, and the next neuron picks them up. Whatever is left over is reabsorbed by the first neuron for future use.
The key to understanding addiction to either of these drugs is to understand how they impact dopamine. Dopamine is the primary reward neurotransmitter in the brain. When it is released, you feel good and pleasurable effects from it. Cocaine blocks the reuptake of dopamine by the initiating cell. This dopamine reuptake allows for more of the chemical to be present in the synaptic gap, which creates a pleasurable effect. A second chemical, called Brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, amplifies this effect on the brain and makes cocaine more addicting.
The exciting part of this research is how BDNF affects morphine. Morphine also increases the amount of dopamine in the gap, but the presence of BDNF makes morphine less addictive. This particular chemical turns off the pleasure/ reward system inherent in morphine, and it is an exciting prospect to researchers. Finding something that decreases addiction is vital to finding a way to reduce those feelings in humans.

Finding Better Ways to Treat Morphine and Cocaine Addiction

Scientists genetically bred rats to eliminate the production of BDNF in the laboratory. When these rats were exposed to morphine, they became exponentially more addicted to the drug than in the non-genetically altered rats. This points to BDNF as a significant player in the overall addition cycle for all opioid medications and drugs.
This may mean in the future that BDNF is used as a drug to decrease the reward effect of morphine. The problem with brain chemicals is that it is usually challenging to get the drugs to cross the blood-brain barrier before the body processes them out as toxins. Certain chemicals, such as levodopa for dopamine, can get around this mechanism and affect the brain. In the future, scientists will have to determine if BDNF has the same effect on humans on rats, and they will have to find a way to deliver the medication to the synaptic gaps in the brain. Although this research is only preliminary, it is exciting to learn new advances in the fight against opioid addiction.

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