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A Chicago-area scientist is studying the the effect of drugs on the brain and displaying the damage.

Dr. Bobby Kasthuri is a University of Chicago neuroscientist. He’s tried to capture the essence of drugs in the brain for decades. And now images that highlight the effects are opening the door to find new ways to treat drug addiction.

“It’s like you have a really nice set of wires in your brain and then you take drugs of abuse, and it really scrambles those wires,” Kasthuri said. “It tangles them up in ways that they shouldn’t be.”

Thirty-five years after the provocative campaign “This is your brain on drugs” appeared on TV, Kasthuri said researchers now have a much clearer understanding of the impact of drugs.

“Your behavior, in fact everything about you, your thoughts, your memories, your behaviors — are all in that map of connections,” he said.

Exploring the human brain is like exploring outer space, only more complicated. There are 100 billion neurons to map, that’s 10-times the amount of stars in the sky. But Kasthuri and his team started their mission in a smaller model: A mouse. 

“We then compared mice never exposed to cocaine to mice that had one maybe two exposures,” he said.

Three days later, thousands of nano-sized slices of mouse brain were magnified under a high-powered electron microscope. The high-resolution images, 100 terabytes, worth of data were then fed to a supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory that translated the information for human consumption.

“We saw dramatic physical changes in the circuitry of the brain after just one exposure to cocaine and just a few days after,” Kasthuri said.

The research team honed in on dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. It’s released in a controlled manner when you engage in something that evokes pleasure, like eating, exercise or intimacy. When you take a drug like cocaine, dopamine neurons are activated all over the brain – producing too much of a good thing.

“It’s the system that drugs of abuse highjack,” Kasthuri said. “So when you take drugs like cocaine, it increases the amount of dopamine in your system. And it’s one of the reasons we become addicted to it because we associate it with pleasure and joy.”

After the drug exposure, new axons – the wires that help the brain communicate – sprouted like branches from a tree to form new but potentially dangerous connections.

“New connections are generally associated with new memories, new abilities, but new connections in the wrong context, in the context of drugs of abuse reinforce that behavior,” Kasthuri said.  

At the same time, about half of the existing axons formed huge swellings or bulbs, resulting in loss of function.

“It makes me think how hard it is to overcome addiction,” Kasthuri said.  

The first-of-its-kind visual is a potential new path to treatment.

“I think the knowledge that there are these dramatic physical changes, I hope is not too depressing,” Kasthuri said. “It was slightly depressing for me to think about, but I think ultimately it will lead us to better therapies.”

The next step increase the cocaine doses for a longer time to gather even more data.