Scientists discover opiate addiction switch in the brain

By Communications Staff
September 13, 2013

Share this:View PDFPrinter Friendly

Western neuroscientists have discovered the underlying molecular process by which opiate addiction develops in the brain, according to a study published in the Sept. 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

“These findings will shed important new light on how the brain is altered by opiate drugs and provide exciting new targets for the development of novel pharmacotherapeutic treatments for individuals suffering from chronic opiate addiction,” said Steven Laviolette of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Opiate addiction is largely controlled by the formation of powerful reward memories that link the pleasurable effects of opiate-class drugs to environmental triggers that induce drug craving in individuals addicted to opiates.

Western’s Addiction Research Group, led by Laviolette, a professor in the Departments of Anatomy & Cell Biology, Psychiatry and Psychology, identified how exposure to heroin induces a specific switch in a memory molecule in a region of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is involved in controlling memories related to opiate addiction, withdrawal and relapse.

Using a rodent model of opiate addiction, Laviolette’s team found the process of opiate addiction and withdrawal triggered a switch between two molecular pathways in the amygdala controlling how opiate addiction memories were formed. In the non-dependent state, they found that a molecule called extracellular signal-related kinase or ‘ERK’ was recruited for early stage addiction memories. However, once opiate addiction had developed, the scientists observed a functional switch to a separate molecular memory pathway, controlled by a molecule called calmodulin-dependent kinase II or ‘CaMKII.’

The paper, Opiate Exposure and Withdrawal Induces a Molecular Memory Switch in the Basolateral Amygdala Between ERK1/2 and CaMKII-Dependent Signaling Substrates, is published in the Sept. 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In addition to Laviolette, co-authors include Danika Lyons, Xavier De Jaeger, Laura Rosen, Tasha Ahmad, Nicole Lauzon, Jordan Zunder, Lique Coolen and Walter Rushlow, all of Schulich.  This research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(holidays excluded)


Helen Connell

Jason Winders

Paul Mayne

Adela Talbot

Advertising Coordinator:
Denise Jones

Off-Campus Advertising Sales:
Chris Amyot, Campus Ad



Western News
Westminster Hall
Suite 360
Western University
N6A 3K7

Western provides the best student experience among Canada's leading research-intensive universities.