Autism-related protein may play a vital role in addiction

May 12, 2014

In a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Neuron, McLean Hospital investigators report that a gene essential for normal brain development, and previously linked to autism spectrum disorders, also plays a critical role in addiction-related behaviors. McLean Hospital is a psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

“In our lab, we investigate the brain mechanisms behind drug addiction,” explains Christopher Cowan, PhD, director of the Integrated Neurobiology Laboratory at McLean. “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.”

The Cowan lab team, led by Laura Smith, PhD, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, used animal models to show that the fragile X mental retardation protein, or FMRP, plays a critical role in the development of addiction-related behaviors. FMRP is also the protein that is missing in Fragile X Syndrome, the leading single-gene cause of autism and intellectual disability. Consistent with its important role in brain function, the team found that cocaine utilizes FMRP to facilitate brain changes involved in addiction-related behaviors.

Cowan explains that FMRP controls the remodeling and strength of connections in the brain during normal development. The team’s current findings reveal that FMRP plays a critical role in the changes in brain connections that occur following repeated cocaine exposure. Read an article summary and view a video abstract.

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