Research shows for the first time how to “block” memory
A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia has found a way to block the communication between brain cells that triggers drug cravings, a finding that could lead to new therapies to treat addiction and relapse as well as compulsive behaviours associated with schizophrenia. The breakthrough was made possible with the support of a $1.5-million NeuroScience Canada Brain Repair Program team grant that enabled five scientists from across Canada to join their labs and fast-track their research. Two of the members of this grant led the work at the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital.
Senior UBC investigators Dr. Anthony Phillips and Dr.Yu Tian Wang have created a peptide — or protein fragment — that in animal models can block specific chemical messengers that remember the body’s response to stimulant drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine. When chemical communication is disrupted, the brain “forgets” the previous drug experience and cravings, or impulse to renew the drug sensation, are reduced or eliminated.
Exchange of chemical messages within the brain is called synaptic function. The UBC research reveals, for the first time, the mechanism of synaptic function related to memory. The findings are published in the November 25 th issue of Science.
“We now have a model for re-programming communication between brain cells,” says Phillips, Director of the UBC Institute of Mental Health, and member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital. “It’s a fundamental finding that promises an entirely new approach to treating addiction and compulsive behaviours .”
“The peptide we created acts in a very specific way to block drug-induced learning without side effects on other learning, memory or basic physiology,” adds Wang, a UBC professor of Neurology who is also a member of the Brain Research Centre and the team leader of the Brain Repair Program grant.
The researchers estimate that the peptide will be ready for therapeutic drug development within a few years. Although the initial studies are promising, Wang cautioned that the drug is in the early stages of development and is years away from testing in humans.
“This research represents a critical step towards developing therapies for the treatment of compulsive disorders and potentially even the eradication of drug addiction, a costly burden for our society,” says the Honourable Michael H. Wilson, Chair of NeuroScience Canada, a national umbrella organization for neuroscience research, whose Brain Repair Program helped support this research. “Diseases, disorders and injuries of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system, including addiction together cost the Canadian economy more than $30 billion each year, but despite the magnitude of the problem, neuroscience research, with just $100 million in operating grants in Canada annually, is still greatly under funded in this country.”
There are more than 1,000 diseases, disorders and injuries of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. They include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, autism, schizophrenia, depression, addictions, brain tumours and spinal cord injury.
Ten million Canadians of all ages — or one in three — will be affected by a disease, disorder or injury of the brain, spinal cord or nervous system. Fifty percent of all Canadians — about 15 million people — have had a brain disorder impact their family. Based on Health Canada data, the economic burden of these disorders is conservatively estimated at 14% of the total burden of disease, or $22.7 billion annually; however , when disability is included, the economic burden reaches 38% or more, according to the World Health Organization.
According to Statistics Canada, one out of every 10 Canadians aged 15 and over, about 2.6 million people, reported symptoms consistent with alcohol or illicit drug dependence in 2002. Substance dependence has serious medical and economic consequences with higher morbidity and shorter life expectancy than the general population, due, in part, to more chronic conditions, injuries and suicide attempts.
Founded in 1988, NeuroScience Canada is Canada’s umbrella organization and voice for the neurosciences. Through partnering with the public, private and voluntary sectors, NeuroScience Canada connects the knowledge and resources available in this area to accelerate neuroscience research and funding, and maximize the output of Canada’s world-class scientists and researchers. The mission of NeuroScience Canada’s Brain Repair Program is to fast-track neuroscience research in order to develop treatments and therapies more quickly . Dr. Wang and Dr. Phillips are two members of the five-person team whose other members are Dr. Alaa El-Husseini, Brain Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia; Dr. Stephen Ferguson, Robarts Research Institute, London, Ontario; and Dr. Ridha Joober, Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Montreal, Quebec. NeuroScience Canada and its donors and partners have already invested $4.5 million, through the Brain Repair Program, to teams conducting breakthrough work in the area of brain repair, including $1.5 million to the team led by Dr. Yu Tian Wang. The goal of the Brain Repair Program is to initially fund five teams, for a total investment of $8 million.
The Brain Research Centre is a partnership of UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, the research body of the health authority.