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Finding solutions to the world's most difficult problems

The Pleasure Principle

Unless you’ve been addicted to a powerful drug such as cocaine, it’s hard to imagine the relentless cravings that will drive a user to do anything to achieve another high. But we do know the devastating consequences of drug addiction on individuals, families and society as a whole.

That’s why Juan Dominguez, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at The University of Texas at Austin, is working to solve some of the mysteries of cocaine addiction and ultimately identify new and more effective drug therapy treatments.

Where exactly in the brain does addiction occur? What exacerbates cravings? Why does cocaine use interfere with the brain’s reward system — the natural response to pleasurable activities such as eating or having sexual intercourse — and create an insatiable desire for more?

With the aid of a $1.5 million grant from theNational Institutes of Healthand the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dominguez and his laboratory team are exploring these and other questions. They are focusing on the dynamics between levels of estrogen and testosterone — which play a key role in the body’s “feel good” stimuli — and the effects of cocaine on rodents.

Among his discoveries, Dominguez has found a link between elevated estrogen and cocaine addiction and is exploring the possibility of whether progesterone — estrogen’s counterpart — might work as part of a drug therapy to stem cravings.

“Cocaine makes the reward response linger longer, and hormones enhance that effect,” Dominguez says. “During a female’s ovulation cycle — when they are most sexually active — this increase in hormone levels spurs their need to go out and seek a mate. During this process, the rewards for sex, food and drugs like cocaine are enhanced.”

A more precise understanding of the relationship between sex hormones and addiction could mean a major breakthrough in helping people overcome the burden of addiction. What happens in Dominguez’s lab could someday save lives.

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