Researchers Hope Zebrafish Hold Key to Opioid Addiction Treatment

Colin Fredericson
By Colin Fredericson
August 29, 2017US News
Researchers Hope Zebrafish Hold Key to Opioid Addiction Treatment
Zebrafish. (Oregon State University/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)


Scientists gave zebrafish opioids, and watched them get hooked on the drug as a way to find out how humans can stay off the drugs.

Zebrafish are known to have the ability to get addicted to a wide variety of drugs that humans can get addicted to. Scientists developed a way to have the fish themselves release the opioids into the water. Researchers at the University of Utah figured out the experiment’s logistics. Zebrafish are considered physiologically and genetically similar to humans, as National Geographic reported. Scientists are betting on that similarity to find an effective treatment.

In the study when the fish swim over a sensor the opioids are automatically released into the tank. They learn that the sensor provides them with drugs, and stay mostly positioned over it once the addiction starts. When the sensor was just used for the release of food, the fish weren’t swimming over it nearly as much. Scientists are hoping the experiment can reap dividends on the road to ending the opioid crisis.

A baby is born addicted to opioids every 25 minutes in the United States. Drug overdoses are a leading cause of death in the country. Thirty-three thousand people died from opioid abuse in 2015. That number includes deaths from opioids prescribed medically, as well as from heroin abuse. Dealing with drug issues related to crime, health, and lost productivity costs the country nearly $200 billion a year, according to National Geographic.

Part of the problem with opioid abuse is that addicts often get them legally, through their doctors. A paper published this month suggests the issue lies in the medical training of the doctor. The report suggests that doctors who graduated from the lower ranked medical schools are many times more likely to prescribe opioids, and therefore contribute to the crisis, the National Bureau of Economic Research paper suggests.

A 2016 report from the surgeon general’s office indicated that 27 million Americans have a drug addiction.

Another National Geographic article indicates the pernicious effects of drug use on the brain.

“Addiction causes hundreds of changes in brain anatomy, chemistry, and cell-to-cell signaling, including in the gaps between neurons called synapses, which are the molecular machinery for learning. By taking advantage of the brain’s marvelous plasticity, addiction remolds neural circuits to assign supreme value to cocaine or heroin or gin, at the expense of other interests such as health, work, family, or life itself.”

There are currently no effective means of treating opioid addiction. Researchers would like to find treatments that don’t require the administration of another form of opioid to treat a patient’s current addiction.


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