Drugs have a habit of making their way from our bodies into the environment: they’ve frequently been found in waste water, drinking water, and rivers (not to mention on dollar bills). But they could also be rising into the air, and a new study suggests their aerial concentrations could give scientists a clue to what, exactly, is happening on the ground below. Following up on earlier research showing that cocaine was present in the air above the cities of Taranto and Rome, Italian researchers at the Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research in Rome took about 60 samples of air in various regions and tested for a number of contaminants, including cocaine, cannabinoids (chemicals found in marijuana), and more common pollutants, like ozone and hydrocarbons. When they looked to see whether there was a correlation between cocaine concentration and addicts’ requests for treatment in particular geographical areas, they found a very strong relationship. Weaker correlations existed between cocaine concentration and police seizures of cocaine and concentration and seizure of all kinds of illicit substances.
The team is excited about the possibility of using aerial cocaine concentration to get a sense of drug use levels, a notoriously slippery thing to measure, and possibly other activities that sometimes occur in tandem with drug use, like robberies. However, their approach didn’t turn up any significant correlations between crime-related activities and cannabinoids, which is interesting—what does that mean about the social correlates of marijuana use (or, alternatively, about the fraction of cannabinoids that actually make into the air)? If you’re worried about getting high from the air, it seems unlikely that concentrations are high enough to have an effect. But who knows—that’s a question that has yet to be addressed.
What’s the News: Epidemiologists have long noticed that people with drug addictions often start out smoking cigarettes before moving on to harder stuff. Whether that’s because there’s something about cigarettes that makes people vulnerable to other drugs or because certain kinds of people are predisposed to addiction (or for some other reason entirely) is an open question, and the idea of so-called “gateway drugs” has been a controversial topic in addiction for years. Now, an elegant new study in mice has discovered a mechanism that could explain the gateway drug effect: nicotine actually changes the expression of genes linked to addiction.
By combining a cocaine analog with part of a common cold virus, researchers have created a “cocaine vaccine” that tricks the body into attacking the drug, neutralizing its high-giving powers. It has only been tested in mice so far, but the results are good:
“Our very dramatic data shows that we can protect mice against the effects of cocaine, and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans,” study researcher Ronald Crystal, a professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, said in a statement. [LiveScience]
The immune system doesn’t typically react to cocaine in the blood stream–it’s too small and doesn’t contain the “markers” of an invader. To get the white blood cells to notice it, the researchers strapped it to something the immune system can detect–the outside parts of the virus. The researchers took the outer shell from an adenovirus, which causes some types of the common cold, and removed the parts of the virus that cause illness. Then they linked that recognizable viral shell to a stable molecule similar to cocaine (they also tried it with cocaine itself, the researchers say, but the more-stable analog produced better results).
Addiction researchers constantly wade through the ways that drugs like cocaine change your brain, and a new study in Science has pointed to a new epigenetic factor. Cocaine, the researchers say, can scramble the way genes turn on and off in a key brain region associated with pleasure and reward.
Ian Maze said his team gave one group of mice repeated doses of cocaine and other group repeated doses of saline with just one blast of cocaine at the end to study the differences. The team paid particular attention to a protein called G9a, whose behavior in the nucleus accumbens region of the brain seems to be altered by cocaine use. The role of the protein appears to be to shut down genes that shouldn’t be on. One-time use of cocaine increases levels of G9a. But repeated use works the other way, suppressing the protein and reducing its overall control of gene activation [TIME]. The researchers found that the overactive genes caused brain cells in the region to grow more connections to each other. The growth of such neural connections can reflect learning. But in the case of addiction, that may involve learning to connect a place or a person with the desire for more drugs [TIME].
Cocaine combined with capsaicin, an active ingredient in pepper spray, can be deadly, if research in mice is any indication.
In the early 1990s, anecdotes of people dying after being doused with pepper spray puzzled researchers, until autopsies revealed many were on cocaine at the time. To look for a link between the two substances, a research team injected cocaine, capsaicin or both at once into the abdomens of several groups of about 30 mice. Injections allowed them to control the dose of capsaicin the mice received, which wouldn’t have been possible if the mice were simply sprayed [New Scientist]. Equal doses of cocaine plus capsaicin killed about half the mice, compared to cocaine alone, which killed just a few. And a dose of cocaine high enough to kill half the mice on its own killed up to 90 percent when combined with capsaicin.
Almost one-third of the cocaine seized in the United States is tainted with the livestock deworming medication levamisole, according to Drug Enforcement Administration documents the Associated Press received.
Levamisole, which can give users a more intense high, weakens the immune system, and has killed at least three people and sickened 100 in Canada and the United States. What’s more, physicians remain largely unaware of the tainted drugs, leaving them helpless to diagnose or treat those affected. “I would think it would be fair to say the vast majority of doctors in the United States have no idea this is going on,” said Eric Lavonas, assistant director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, where as much as half of the cocaine is believed to contain levamisole. “You can’t diagnose a disease you’ve never heard of” [Associated Press].
Because of the particular distribution mechanism of cocaine, it may be difficult to get the warning out to people at risk. “It’s not like you can put [a warning] on the bottle” [Associated Press], says Lavonas.
80beats: Honeybees Get High on Cocaine and Dance, Dance, Dance
80beats: To Help Heroin Addicts, Give Them… Prescription Heroin?
80beats: Can Erasing a Drug Memory Erase the Need for a Fix?
When a honeybee is given a dose of cocaine, it gets overexcited about poor-quality food and performs overenthusiastic dances to communicate with its hivemates, according to an odd new study that got bees hooked on drugs. The research found similarities between honey bees and humans, in that they are both are driven by rewards and both have their judgment altered by cocaine. “This is the first time that it’s been shown that cocaine has been rewarding to an insect” [Reuters], says study coauthor Andrew Barron.
After a honeybee has been out foraging for food, it returns to the hive and tells the other bees what it found by means of a “waggle dance” that describes the location and quality of the food source. But after dabbing low doses of cocaine on the bees’ backs before they went out, the researchers observed that when they returned they were more likely to dance for their nest mates, and performed particularly vigorous routines explaining where the food was located [The Guardian]. They performed these exuberant dances even when the food source that the researchers provided was a weak sugar water solution that didn’t merit the hive’s attention.