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Scientists research how brain chemical significantly impacted by drug addiction

OKLAHOMA CITY - Scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation have found out what happens to the brain when too much dopamine is released through factors like drug addiction.

"Dopamine is very important for initiation of movement," said Dr. Mike Beckstead, Ph.D., scientist at Oklahoma Research Medical Foundation. "It's also important for our perception of rewards in the brain.”

And, too little or too much dopamine can have tragic effects.

"Parkinson's is one disease you get when you don't have enough dopamine in your brain or, on the other side of it, too much dopamine can cause other things to go wrong and, a lot of times, it's responsible for things like drug addiction,” Beckstead said.

Beckstead recently moved to Oklahoma from Texas to continue his 16-year research on how the chemical reacts in the brain.

What's he's found so far is drug addiction drastically affects the natural dopamine released through rewards.

"If I were to give you a natural reward like a bowl of ice cream if you were hungry, you would get a certain appropriate release of dopamine that would signal this is a reward and it's satisfying," Beckstead said.

But, drugs like heroine and methamphetamine release abnormally high levels of the chemical that teaches the brain the drug is more important than natural rewards like eating when hungry and having a family.

"You'll hear stories about people who are drug addicts who are robbing from their loved ones, who no longer want to maintain a job or have a loving family because their brain is teaching them that that drug is the most important things in their lives,” Beckstead said.

While some drug addictions can be treated with a pharmaceutical like methadone, methamphetamine cannot. Beckstead would love to figure out how to treat that drug addiction.

"Eventually, I think that's the way we're going to end up treating a lot of these brain diseases and disorders is by targeting specific pathways in the human brain," he said.

Beckstead's team has two grants from the National Institutes of Health to help with their research.