Charleston Opioid Center on Addiction (COCA)

The Charleston Opioid Center on Addiction (COCA) was created by the NIH to discover the neurological mechanisms that compel people using opioids to relapse and to employ this knowledge in designing novel treatments to prevent relapse.

The Problem of Drug Addiction: The personal, social and criminal consequences of opioid use disorder (OUD) are enormous problems in North America. This is most tragically seen in rising morbidity due to heroin, prescription opioids, and fentanyl overdose in the USA. Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) typically cycle between three phases, active drug use, withdrawal from drug use, and relapse to drug use. A point in the SUDs cycle where pharmacological intervention can be particularly beneficial is to interfere with the overwhelming motivation by opioid users to relapse to drug use, even after extended periods of abstinence when acute withdrawal symptoms have dissipated. However, the enduring state of relapse vulnerability arises from interdependent brain adaptations produced during all three phases of addiction. Thus, in order to develop biological rationales for treating relapse, it is necessary to understand the developmental neurobiology of relapse.

The COCA Strategy for Solving the Problem: The overarching vision of the Charleston Opioid Center on Addiction (COCA) is to facilitate discovering the neuropathology(s) underpinning the enduring and uncontrollable drive to use opioids and thereby advance biological rationales needed to efficiently generate pharmacotherapies that inhibit drug relapse. This goal is being achieved through a bidirectional translational strategy between basic research in rodents and clinical research in humans that involves 3 Cores and 4 Research Projects. In addition to the Administrative and Pilot Grant Cores, the Animal & Validation Core makes available transgenic rodents that have been trained to self-administer heroin. These animals have been instrumented with intracranial cannulae, fiber optics, or endoscopic lens. This Core also validates all viral reagents and transgenic animals shared by the COCA Cores and Projects. The 4 Research Projects range from determining the epigenetic substrates of long-lasting heroin-induced alterations to understanding the molecular and brain circuit mechanisms of cue-induced drug seeking in rodents and humans. The Projects are highly integrated and form a bidirectional translation strategy between basic research and human experimentation to provide the biological knowledge needed for new therapeutic approaches to relapse prevention.