Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for alleviating pain and serving as an anesthetic. It is about 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic.
The opioid crisis continues to pose a grave public health concern, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl posing a major risk for the development of addiction and death due to overdose. The drug was responsible for over 100,000 deaths in 2021 in the US alone.
In a ground-breaking development, a new lab mouse study by the research group led by Prof. Ami Citri at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) has revealed crucial insights into the brain's potential ability to regulate the urge to consume fentanyl – offering a glimmer of hope in the ongoing battle against opioid addiction.
The study, titled “Claustral neurons projecting to frontal cortex restrict opioid consumption” and published in the journal Current Biology, focused on claustral neurons – a specific type of brain cells and their role in fentanyl consumption. The researchers found that claustral neurons showed distinctive patterns of activity when fentanyl was consumed. Manipulating these neurons made it possible for the researchers to modulate the amount of fentanyl consumed, indicating their direct influence on opioid intake.
A new method for studying opioid consumption
The study also introduced a novel method for studying opioid consumption that mimicked more closely the real-life conditions under which humans consume opioids. By enabling the exploration of how social interactions influence drug consumption, this technical advance promises to provide valuable insights, promoting the identification of treatments that will alleviate addiction.
The results of this study represent a significant advancement in combating opioid addiction, offering a ray of hope in the ongoing battle, said Citri. Particularly noteworthy is the discovery that the claustrum acts as a regulator of fentanyl intake, he said. “When the claustrum is activated, it effectively reduces drug consumption, whereas its suppression leads to an escalation in drug intake. This crucial finding suggests that targeting claustral neurons holds promise for the future development of effective strategies aimed at mitigating opioid addiction in human patients. Work along these lines is currently underway in our lab.”
Citri is enthusiastic about the study’s potential implications, stating, “Our findings shed light on the intricate relationship between the brain and fentanyl consumption. Understanding the role of claustral neurons in regulating the urge to consume opioids offers a new avenue for interventions aimed at curbing addiction.”
The study’s outcomes carry significant implications for public health initiatives addressing the opioid crisis, he added. “By expanding our knowledge of the neural processes involved in addiction, researchers and healthcare professionals can work toward developing more effective prevention and treatment strategies.”
The research represents a significant technical achievement in the field of neuroscience. Co-authored by Anna Terem who was recently awarded her doctorate and Yonatan Fatal, who initiated the project as a high-school student, the research demonstrates the potential to shape future therapeutic interventions and offers valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying the regulation of opioid consumption.
Looking towards the future, the team said their study opens doors for further investigation into the claustrum’s function in different stages and aspects of the addiction process. “The results highlight the claustrum as a potential target for intervention in fentanyl addiction. Follow-up studies can explore drugs and substances that increase claustrum activity to determine their effectiveness in decreasing drug consumption and addiction. While more research is needed, it holds promise for preventing addiction and potentially helping individuals currently struggling with active addiction.