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Opioid addiction in America continues to be an important topic for lawmakers, healthcare professionals and addiction researchers. With over two million Americans addicted to opioids of one form or another, effective measures must be taken to curb our skyrocketing addiction rates. While it is well known that the disease of addiction lives in the brain like any other mental illness, but what is less certain is where to target when developing new medications for the treatment of addiction. Finding such targets could have huge implications and mitigate opioid addiction rates in the United States.

Researchers at Georgia State University (GSU) and Emory University may have determined a particular brain mechanism that could be a promising target for preventing tolerance and opioid addiction, according to a GSU press release. The study showed that blocking a particular cytokine (chemical messengers that trigger an immune response) puts a stop to morphine tolerance. The findings of the study were published in the Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

“These results have important clinical implications for the treatment of pain and also addiction,” said Lori Eidson, lead author and a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Anne Murphy in the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State. “Until now, the precise underlying mechanism for opioid tolerance and its prevention have remained unknown.” 

If scientists can create a drug that prohibits one from developing a tolerance to opioid painkillers, then doctors would be able to prescribe lower doses for shorter period of times. Addiction often ensues from a patient requiring more and more of a drug to achieve the desired painkilling effect. Taking drugs like morphine for extended periods of time results in dependence, which can easily lead to addiction.

Despite the addictive potential of opioid painkillers, such drugs are invaluable in a number of situations where alternative forms of pain management prove ineffective. So it is fairly safe to say that prescription opioids are not going anywhere, anytime soon. Research that can shine a light on how to mitigate the risk of addiction is crucial.