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Autism Gene Linked to Addictive Behavior

Update Date: May 09, 2014 09:19 PM EDT

A gene related to autism and healthy brain development may also play an essential role in addiction-related behaviors, according to a new study.

"In our lab, we investigate the brain mechanisms behind drug addiction - a common and devastating disease with limited treatment options," lead researcher Christopher Cowan, PhD, director of the Integrated Neurobiology Laboratory at McLean and an associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release. "Chronic exposure to drugs of abuse causes changes in the brain that could underlie the transition from casual drug use to addiction. By discovering the brain molecules that control the development of drug addiction, we hope to identify new treatment approaches."

Experiments on animal models reveal that the fragile X mental retardation protein, significantly influences the development of addiction-related behaviors. Scientists explain that the fragile X mental retardation protein is also the protein missing in Fragile X Syndrome, the leading single-gene cause of autism and intellectual disability.

The latest findings reveal that cocaine utilizes the fragile X mental retardation protein to trigger brain changes involved in addiction-related behaviors. Researchers also found that the protein plays an important role in the changes in brain connections following repeated cocaine exposure.

"We know that experiences are able to modify the brain in important ways. Some of these brain changes help us, by allowing us to learn and remember. Other changes are harmful, such as those that occur in individuals struggling with drug abuse," researchers said. "While FMRP allows individuals to learn and remember things in their environment properly, it also controls how the brain responds to cocaine and ends up strengthening drug behaviors. By better understanding FMRP's role in this process, we may someday be able to suggest effective therapeutic options to prevent or reverse these changes."

The findings are published in the journal Neuron.

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