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Addiction can be a strong mix of physical and mental programming proving insurmountably deadly – especially when it comes to substances like heroin. "Chasing the dragon" has become a life-long pursuit with an inevitable end for a record number of addicts in the U.S. and beyond.

But a new study contends that epigenetic changes wrought in the DNA through opiate abuse can potentially be reversed, providing a new pathway to beat back addiction at the most fundamental biological level.

The glutamate receptor gene in the human brain undergoes an impairment that increases chromatin, and consequently gene transcription, the paper reports, in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“Epigenetic markers are physical alterations to the DNA that do not change the sequence of a gene, and thus have the potential to be reversed,” said Yasmin Hurd, leader of the study, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Because epigenetic impairments are physical alterations to the DNA that do not change the sequence of a gene, they have the potential to be reversed, so our next step was to address this possibility.”

First, they looked at the molecular organization of the human brain in corpses – 48 heroin users and 37 drug-free decreased persons.

The striatum region of the brain, they said, revealed the differences in the glutamate receptor GRIA1, through the process of acetylation wrought by the drug dependency.

The second part of the experiments involved rats which were self-administering doses of heroin. The scientists administered a compound JQ1, originally devised to fight the spread of cancer.

It had a countering effect against the acetylation process, which reduced the rats’ self administration of the heroin. It also proved to reduce the drug-seeking behavior after the rats had stopped taking heroin entirely.

“At this time, when prescription opioid use and opioid overdoses are both major threats to our public health, it is important to identify new treatment targets, such as epigenetic processes, that help to change the way that we do business in treating opioid use disorders,” said John Krystal, the editor of Biological Psychiatry, in a statement accompanying the new study.

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