A chemical tweak that could make drug addicts feel anxiety instead of pleasure is being worked on by Wellington scientists.
They hope their research, using a hallucinogenic Mexican plant, will "put New Zealand on the map" by coming up with a breakthrough treatment for psychostimulants, such as ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Tapping the right compound could prevent relapse in addicts, reduce cravings, or reverse the effects of drugs. It also had the potential to be used in the treatment of addiction to opiates, such as heroin.
"If you take it while you're taking meth, the meth may not feel as pleasurable and so the desire to do meth decreases," said PhD student Amy Ewald, who is part of a team of researchers at Victoria University of Wellington's school of biological sciences and in the United States.
The work involves chemically altering compounds from the salvia divinorum plant, which has been used by native Mazatec people of Mexico for centuries in healing and consciousness-expanding rituals.
Researchers hope they can unlock versions of the psychotropic salvinorin A molecule that have no side-effects in treating addiction. At present, such side-effects can include depression, hallucinations, confusion and drowsiness.
Trials are in the pre-clinical phase, but Ms Ewald said the research had the potential to "put New Zealand on the map" because no-one had yet come up with a treatment for psychostimulants that had been approved by the influential United States Food and Drug Administration.
"We're activating a protein called the kappa opioid receptor. Generally, when this protein is activated, it produces feelings of unease.
"This pathway acts in opposition to the brain's natural reward system," Ms Ewald said.
However, the effects of the compound only last about an hour, and scientists also have to figure out how to extend its efficacy.
The long-term research is in its infancy and researchers do not know how long it will take to crack the compound.
The 2012 World Drug Report estimated 21 per cent of New Zealanders aged 16 to 64 had abused illegal drugs.
Harmful drug use is linked to social costs such as unemployment and crime, estimated at more than $6 billion a year.
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said treatment and rehabilitation, rather than criminalising and policing drug use, had helped halve methamphetamine use since the P epidemic peaked in the mid-2000s.
However, the decrease in recreational use left behind a hard core of addicts.
"One of the challenges with the rise in stimulants like coke, ecstasy and meth is the limited treatment options available," Mr Bell said.
- The Dominion Post
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