“Cold Turkey” Withdrawal Triggers Mental Decline in Animals

Nov. 11, 2013 – Georgetown University Medical Center researchers have found that stopping morphine “cold turkey” in addicted animal models causes a serious decline in mental health, a finding that could lead to better ways of helping people quit harmful drugs.

“Over time, drug-abusing individuals often develop mental disorders,” says Italo Mocchetti, a professor of neuroscience whose work was presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting this week. “It’s been thought that drug abuse itself contributes to mental decline, but our findings suggest that quitting cold turkey can also lead to damage.”

In the study, also published in the November issue of Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Mocchetti and his research colleagues treated the animals with morphine or allowed them to undergo withdrawal by stopping the treatment. They subsequently measured the animals’ pro-inflammatory cytokines, which promote damage and cell death, and the protein CCL5, which has protective effects in the brain.

Italo Mocchetti

The animals that weren’t treated during withdrawal had the opposite results – the level of their protective proteins decreased while the amount of damaging cytokines increased.

“From these findings, it appears that morphine withdrawal may be a causative factor that leads to mental decline, presenting an important avenue for research in how we can better help people who are trying to quit using drugs,” Mocchetti says.

Lee A. Campbell (G’14), a Ph.D. student in pharmacology in Mocchetti’s lab, presented the study. Other authors include Dr. Valeriya Avdoshina, an instructor in the neuroscience department, and Summer Rozzi, a doctoral student in Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.

“In the future, we hope to determine if using medications to block the release of damaging molecules can help attenuate withdrawal symptoms such as drug cravings and general feelings of sickness.  This would allow a smoother recovery for drug abusers and help prevent drug relapse.”

Grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1F31DA032282 and 1R01DA026174) supported the research.