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Chronic pain affects millions of American across the country, and unfortunately the most effective form of treatment is also addictive. People suffering from chronic pain are typically prescribed opioid narcotics, such as Vicodin (hydrocodone) or OxyContin (oxycodone). While the aforementioned drugs, as well as others in the opioid family, work very well, such drugs have led to an epidemic resulting on an increase in opioid addiction. The scourge of opioid abuse in the United States has driven researchers to search tirelessly for alternatives, giving doctors options so they do not have to always rely on opioids.

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine report that chronic pain alters the nucleus accumbens, the area of our brains that plays a part in addiction, and dictates whether or not we feel happy or sad, ScienceDaily reports. The use of a Parkinson’s drug, L-dopa, and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug in conjunction, may restore the nucleus accumbens and reduce pain symptoms.

“It was surprising to us that chronic pain actually rewires the part of the brain controlling whether you feel happy or sad,” said corresponding author D. James Surmeier, chair of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “By understanding what was causing these changes, we were able to design a corrective therapy that worked remarkably well in the models. The question now is whether it will work in humans.” 

In animal tests researchers observed that the combination of the two drugs reversed the changes to the nucleus accumbens and their pain symptoms ceased, according to the article. The majority of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity, Parkinson’s medications raise dopamine levels as well.

“It is remarkable that by changing the activity of a single cell type in an emotional area of the brain, we can prevent the pain behavior,” said corresponding author, Marco Martina, associate professor of physiology at Feinberg. 

Human studies are required to determine if combining the two medications will have the same results as the rat tests. The findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.