Meds for sleep problem may help treat drug and alcohol addiction

Credit: Jamie Street / Unsplash

Overdose deaths have skyrocketed past 100,000 a year and existing treatment options have limited efficacy.

In a study from Rutgers and elsewhere, scientists found a biological process for drug and alcohol addiction, and they believe existing insomnia treatments could be used to reduce or eliminate cravings.

They found that the brain’s orexin system—which regulates sleep/wake states, reward systems and mood—motivates drug-seeking behavior.

The researchers report that many drugs of abuse increase orexin production in both animal and human brains and that blocking this system reverses addiction in animals.

Another study has even found that one of the three orexin-blocking sleep aids approved for insomnia treatment reduces opioid cravings in human subjects.

The review draws on more than a decade of publications from researchers at Rutgers and peer institutions, and it suggests that orexin spurs drug craving, and thus, motivation to procure a drug.

Under normal circumstances, many orexin-producing cells in the brain turn orexin production on and off in ways that raise and lower motivation.

These cells turn on when, for example, people face a tight deadline and need to get work done and turn off at night to enable sleep.

However, when people become addicted to opioids, cocaine, alcohol and other substances, these cells increase orexin production but no longer turn it off.

They stay on constantly, producing high levels of orexin that motivates one behavior: getting another hit.

In the study, the researchers systematically examined each step in the process. They found the same increase in the human orexin system that researchers have observed in addicted animals.

Earlier research into orexin’s sleep-blocking effects spurred the creation of anti-orexin insomnia medications, three of which have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Belsomra, Quviviq and Davigo).

As orexin’s role in addiction has emerged, researchers have tested these medications as addiction treatments, mostly in animals.

Research has found that low doses of one of these medications can reduce drug-seeking behavior in rats without sedating them or impairing cognitive function.

Moreover, a recent study showed that this medication can reduce cravings in people detoxifying from opioids.

The team says there’s obviously no guarantee orexin agonists will effectively treat addiction, but this research gives them a good reason for hope.

If you care about sleep, please read studies about drug that can treat sleep loss and insomnia, and Restless sleep may be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease.

For more information about sleep, please see recent studies about exercise that can help you sleep better, and results showing 7 hours of sleep is best for people in middle and old age.

The study was conducted by Gary Aston-Jones et al and published in Biological Psychiatry.

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