Heroin Addiction Can Be Blocked. Not.

“Heroin Addiction Blocked Via Immune System” screams one headline. “Breakthrough research shows heroin addiction can be blocked with new drug” shouts New York Daily News.

It’s official: the world was informed on August 16, 2012, that scientists have found a way to de-addict the world’s most addictive substance.

If you’ve read the article, you’re undoubtedly suspicious at such good news, or curious to know the real implications behind the claims. As the old cliché goes, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” 

However, such a claim must have some evidence to back it up—which it does. In fact, the study is very impressive and contains positive information. It has simply been blown out of proportion.

Plus-Naloxone: What they really mean

Researchers from the University of Adalaide and University of Colorado have found that the drug plus-naloxone can reduce the reinforcing effects of opioids by blocking a part of the immune system–the receptor named TDR4.

How Plus-Naloxone Works: Reduce High Effects, Increase Painkilling Effects

TDR4 increases dopamine, or the chemical that stimulates the reward system to produce feelings of euphoria. When plus-naloxone blocks TDR4, it inhibits the production of dopamine and reduces the “high” effects.

At the same time–and even better for those seeking pain relief–plus-naloxone also increases the pain-killing effects of other opioids. So the future implication is that physicians can prescribe lower doses of an opioid and use plus-naloxone to make up the difference.

The result: with reduced reward effects and a lower dose, painkillers can be made a lot less addicting when combined with plus-naloxone.

No wonder there is so much hype: this is a very promising study with breakthrough results.

But does this mean they have found a “cure” for drug addiction? Did they really “block” addiction?

What this does not mean

Plus-naloxone could prevent and reduce some painkiller addiction—to some extent, anyway. (Usually those set on abusing their drugs will find a way to do so.)

But blocking addiction? No. There are two big problems with the belief that plus-naloxone has “blocked” addiction:

First off, the experiment was conducted on lab rats, not addicts. As one blogger in Scientific American commented:

Second: People have been trying to find the cure for addiction for centuries but haven’t. Drugs, such as suboxone, methadone, and naltrexone, have been used in rehabilitation to help the recovery process, but they are not the answers because they cannot address the underlying issues for why the addiction began in the first place.  

The real solution to drug addiction is addressing the root causes. In the words of one recovering heroin addict in response to the press release:

Although drugs such as plus-naloxone will have many benefits, the best way to treat addiction is still—what it has always been—rehab.

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