Cocaine’s effect on fruit flies could pave way for groundbreaking addiction treatments in humans

CLEMSON, S.C. — On the surface, cocaine and insects don’t have much in common. However, a new study finds the illegal narcotic’s effects on fruit flies could pave the way for new addiction treatments in humans.

Researchers from Clemson University identified areas of the insects’ brains involved with experience-based behavioral changes which the drug activates. Some of these brain regions have counterparts in humans, meaning researchers can now start looking for treatment options that target the same areas.

Cocaine / Fruit Fly Study: Dr. Trudy Mackay
Trudy Mackay is the director of the Clemson Center for Human Genetics. (Credit: Clemson University)

“This research identifies the regions of the brain which are important,” says Clemson geneticist Dr. Trudy Mackay in a university release.

“Now, we can see what genes are expressed when exposed to cocaine and whether there are Federal Drug Administration-approved drugs that could be tested, perhaps first in the fly model. We’ve already spotted several of these genes,” Mackay adds. “This is a baseline. We can now leverage this work to understand potential therapy.”

The study authors explain that while cocaine’s neurological effects are well known, the underlying genetic sensitivity to the drug’s effects is not. To test it, Dr. Mackay and Dr. Robert Anholt examined the effect of the drug on fruit flies which have genes that are around 70 percent similar to humans.

Cocaine has a widespread impact on the brain

The team fed flies either plain sugar or sugar laced with cocaine for two hours. Those exposed to the drug displayed effects not completely different than what is common in humans. These side-effects include seizures, compulsive grooming, and altered movement.

The researchers then dissected each fly’s brains and dissociated them into single cells. The team analyzed a staggering 88,991 individual brain cells during this process. They discovered that all major types of brain cells were affected by cocaine exposure.

Study authors note this individual cell approach was an “ultra-powerful” tool for studying the drug’s effects. Strangely, scientists also discovered the brains of the flies were affected differently depending on the insect’s gender.

“We found the effects of cocaine in the brain are very widespread, and there are distinct differences between males and females,” Dr. Anholt concludes. “We built an atlas of sexually dimorphic cocaine-modulated gene expression in a model brain, which can serve as a resource for the research community.”

The findings appear in the journal Genome Research.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.

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