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Elevated Norepinephrine may be a Unifying Etiological Factor in the Abuse of a Broad Range of Substances: Alcohol, Nicotine, Marijuana, Heroin, Cocaine, and Caffeine

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      A wide range of commonly abused drugs have effects on the noradrenergic neurotransmitter system, including alterations during acute intoxication and chronic use of these drugs. It is not established, however, that individual differences in noradrenergic signaling, which may be present prior to use of drugs, predispose certain persons to substance abuse. This paper puts forth the novel hypothesis that elevated noradrenergic signaling, which may be raised largely due to genetics but also due to environmental factors, is an etiological factor in the abuse of a wide range of substances, including alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and caffeine. Data are reviewed for each of these drugs comprising their interaction with norepinephrine during acute intoxication, long-term use, subsequent withdrawal, and stress-induced relapse. In general, the data suggest that these drugs acutely boost noradrenergic signaling, whereas long-term use also affects this neurotransmitter system, possibly suppressing it. During acute withdrawal after chronic drug use, noradrenergic signaling tends to be elevated, consistent with the observation that norepinephrine lowering drugs such as clonidine reduce withdrawal symptoms. Since psychological stress can promote relapse of drug seeking in susceptible individuals and stress produces elevated norepinephrine release, this suggests that these drugs may be suppressing noradrenergic signaling during chronic use or instead elevating it only in reward circuits of the brain. If elevated noradrenergic signaling is an etiological factor in the abuse of a broad range of substances, then chronic use of pharmacological agents that reduce noradrenergic signaling, such as clonidine, guanfacine, lofexidine, propranolol, or prazosin, may help prevent or treat drug abuse in general.

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      The conceptualization of drug addiction as a compulsive disorder with excessive drug intake and loss of control over intake requires motivational mechanisms. Opponent process as a motivational theory for the negative reinforcement of drug dependence has long required a neurobiological explanation. Key neurochemical elements involved in reward and stress within basal forebrain structures involving the ventral striatum and extended amygdala are hypothesized to be dysregulated in addiction to convey the opponent motivational processes that drive dependence. Specific neurochemical elements in these structures include not only decreases in reward neurotransmission such as dopamine and opioid peptides in the ventral striatum, but also recruitment of brain stress systems such as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), noradrenaline and dynorphin in the extended amygdala. Acute withdrawal from all major drugs of abuse produces increases in reward thresholds, anxiety-like responses and extracellular levels of CRF in the central nucleus of the amygdala. CRF receptor antagonists block excessive drug intake produced by dependence. A brain stress response system is hypothesized to be activated by acute excessive drug intake, to be sensitized during repeated withdrawal, to persist into protracted abstinence and to contribute to stress-induced relapse. The combination of loss of reward function and recruitment of brain stress systems provides a powerful neurochemical basis for the long hypothesized opponent motivational processes responsible for the negative reinforcement driving addiction.
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        Tolerance to the humoral and hemodynamic effects of caffeine in man.

        Acute caffeine in subjects who do not normally ingest methylxanthines leads to increases in blood pressure, heart rate, plasma epinephrine, plasma norepinephrine, plasma renin activity, and urinary catecholamines. Using a double-blind design, the effects of chronic caffeine administration on these same variables were assessed. Near complete tolerance, in terms of both humoral and hemodynamic variables, developed over the first 1-4 d of caffeine. No long-term effects of caffeine on blood pressure, heart rate, plasma renin activity, plasma catecholamines, or urinary catecholamines could be demonstrated. Discontinuation of caffeine ingestion after 7 d of administration did not result in a detectable withdrawal phenomenon relating to any of the variables assessed.
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          There and back again: a tale of norepinephrine and drug addiction.

          Fueled by anatomical, electrophysiological, and pharmacological analyses of endogenous brain reward systems, norepinephrine (NE) was identified as a key mediator of both natural and drug-induced reward in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, reward experiments from the mid-1970s that could distinguish between the noradrenergic and dopaminergic systems resulted in the prevailing view that dopamine (DA) was the primary 'reward transmitter' (a belief holding some sway still today), thereby pushing NE into the background. Most damaging to the NE hypothesis of reward were studies demonstrating that NE receptor antagonists and NE reuptake inhibitors failed to impact drug self-administration. In recent years new tools, such as genetically engineered mice, and new experimental paradigms, such as reinstatement of drug seeking following withdrawal, have propelled NE back into the awareness of addiction researchers. Of particular interest is disulfiram, an inhibitor of the NE biosynthetic enzyme dopamine beta-hydroxylase, which has demonstrated promising efficacy in the treatment of cocaine dependence in preliminary clinical trials. The purpose of this review is to synthesize the new data linking NE to critical aspects of DA signaling and drug addiction, with a focus on psychostimulants (eg, cocaine), opiates (eg, morphine), and alcohol.

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            Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX.
            Author notes
            Corresponding author email: pfitz@
            Subst Abuse
            Subst Abuse
            Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment
            Libertas Academica
            13 October 2013
            : 7
            : 171-183
            © 2013 the author(s), publisher and licensee Libertas Academica Ltd.

            This is an open access article published under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 3.0 license.



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