Helping the brain prune bad habits

A drug that stimulates neuron pruning can nudge mice away from habit-driven behaviors when combined with retraining, neuroscientists have found.

The results were published in Nature Communications.

The drug fasudil, approved in Japan for cerebral vasospasm and stroke, inhibits an enzyme that stabilizes cells' internal skeletons. The researchers suggest that fasudil or similar compounds could be effective tools for facilitating the treatment of drug abuse and preventing relapse.

A large fraction of the actions people perform each day come from habits, not from deliberate decision making. Going on auto-pilot can free up attention for new things, but it can also be detrimental, in the case of drug abuse and drug-seeking behavior, says lead author Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Gourley is a faculty member in the MSP and NS programs.

She and former graduate students Andrew Swanson, PhD and Lauren Depoy, PhD tested fasudil in situations where they had trained mice to poke their noses in two chambers, based on rewards of both food and cocaine. Then the researchers changed the rules of the game. The mice had to learn something new, in terms of where to poke their noses to get the reward.

Click here to view the full story in the Emory News Center. A related story, "Vulnerability to cocaine uncovered in adolescent mouse brains", was also published in Lab Land - The Emory Health Sciences Research Bllog.