Addiction has been around as long as human beings, in one form or another. In fact, today’s addictions look remarkably like those of our past – alcohol, opioids, even behaviors like gambling are addictive. Until this point, addicts (those addicted to substances or behaviors) had little hope beyond sheer willpower, detoxification, and a handful of medications. Today, that is changing thanks in part to stem cell research.

What Is Addiction?

Before we can approach the ways in which stem cells may be able to help those battling addiction, it is important to first define what addiction really is. According to the American Psychiatric Association, addition

"is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence."

Psychology Today magazine defines it as,

"a condition which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences."

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as,

"a primary, chronic disease of the brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors."

Those three different but related definitions provide us with a good foundation on which to build. However, they do not answer how addiction begins in the first place.

How Does Addiction Happen?

To address the question of how addiction begins in the first part, we need to look at the underlying reasons for the behavior. Whether we are discussing alcohol consumption, opioid use, or something like gambling, the situation is remarkably similar. The behavior is performed or the substance used to achieve a desirable condition. For instance, gambling can be quite enjoyable, releasing a flood of endorphins and adrenaline into the brain. Likewise, drinking can also be very enjoyable. The illicit drugs like heroin create a pleasurable sensation in the user.

However, over time (sometimes a very short amount of time), the activity changes the brain structure and its function. The process goes from liking the experience (the high) to actively wanting it. From there it progresses to needing the experience, and then a willingness to do whatever is necessary to get it.

What Are the Signs of Addiction

While there are many different addictions, scientists are beginning to realize that they are all part and parcel of the same disease. That is, someone with a gambling addiction, or an addiction to sex, is suffering from the same underlying condition as an alcoholic. In almost all cases, the signs of addiction are the same, whether we’re talking about a behavior or a substance, and include:

  • A strong desire for the substance or the activity
  • Failing at work or home because of substance use or an activity
  • Inability to socialize because of an activity or substance
  • Using a substance in risky or dangerous circumstances
  • Continuing with substance use or an activity even when problems are known
  • Seeking more and more of a substance or an activity/behavior due to increasing tolerance

What Is the Role of Neurons in Addiction?

With all of this being said, addiction is a disease of the brain, and that makes it very difficult for scientists to study. That is changing with the help of stem cells. For instance, it is now possible for scientists to create custom-designed neurons – the living cells of the brain – and study how drugs and alcohol affect them.

In a paper published through the University of Connecticut’s UCONN Health Today publication, the work of researchers was explained. According to the report’s author,

"Thanks to recent breakthroughs that are revolutionizing stem cell technology … which will yield more effective treatment for alcohol dependence within a few years. The technology that is making this research possible is induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. First generated by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka at Japan’s Kyoto University in 2007, they are stem cells artificially produced by compelling the expression of certain genes in somatic cells, cells extracted from practically any part of the body."

These cells are being used to create artificial neurons in a laboratory setting – essentially miniature brains that allow researchers to observe the effects of drugs and alcohol. However, the process is far from simple. Using skin cells, researchers must isolate the cells and then culture fibroblasts. Stem cell-related genes must then be injected and allowed to grow. The process usually takes about a month and is only one step in creating simulated neurons to study.

Understanding the Difference between Sources of Stem Cells

In the research cited above, the scientists are using skin cells to induce pluripotent stem cells. The reasons for this is the at skin cells (one of the most easily located sources of genetic material) are not particularly rich in pluripotent stem cells. However, there is another potential source – umbilical cord blood and tissue are rich in pluripotent stem cells. These are in fact the building blocks of the body, and the immature stem cells here can transform into any other type of cell necessary, including brain cells (neurons).

It should be noted that most experimental treatments using stem cells on humans use what are called autologous stem cells. That is, the patient’s own stem cells are harvested, concentrated and sometimes cultured, and then injected back into their bodies. Allogeneic stem cells – those found in umbilical cord blood and tissue – are better options here, as well, because they lack the mutations found in a patient’s own aged stem cells, and are far more energetic, with a lifetime of divisions remaining before them.

A Hopeful Future

While the science here is very new, it is promising. With a better understanding of how substances like alcohol or opioids act on actual neurons, there could be hope for actually curing addiction in the not so distant future. However, at the time of this writing, there are no FDA-approved stem cell treatments for humans, and any such procedures are strictly experimental. However advanced, stem cells will never replace psychological part of an addiction treatment.


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