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Cocaine study makes advance in problem of addiction

Dr. R. Christopher Pierce received the Joseph Cochin Young Investigator Award for his work on cocaine addiction.

Dr. R. Christopher Pierce and friend.

At the 2006 annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD), Dr. R. Christopher Pierce, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Boston University’s School of Medicine, received the Joseph Cochin Young Investigator Award. The award recognizes an individual under 40 who has shaped the field of drug abuse research through his or her work. 

The CPDD serves as a liaison among governmental, industrial and academic communities, maintaining connections with regulatory and research agencies as well as educational, treatment, and prevention facilities in the drug abuse field. The Award Committee chose Pierce as this year’s recipient because of the great strides his research has made in the understanding of the neurochemical and behavioral basis for compulsive cocaine use. 

In the laboratory, he and his research team train rats and mice to self-administer the drug in daily sessions for several weeks. “We are interested in the changes in the brain resulting from this history of cocaine administration,” said Pierce. “Our goal is to outline the changes in the brain that result in cocaine addiction.  This information can then be used to identify novel targets for the development of therapies for cocaine addiction.” 

While it has been known for some time that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a significant role in the rewarding effects of cocaine, Pierce and his team have discovered another neurotransmitter that contributes to addiction.  In their animal subjects, they have determined that glutamate is linked to the intense craving that stems from repeated cocaine consumption. 

Based on these findings, Pierce believes that cocaine relapse after detoxification can be reduced with a drug that could interact with the brain’s glutamate receptors.  “Since cocaine craving is a major factor in precipitating relapse of cocaine, our results suggest that drugs acting on the brain’s glutamate systems may represent novel pharmcotherapies for cocaine craving and addiction,” said Pierce.

Pierce received his baccalaureate degree in psychology from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in 1988 and his Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1993.  He was a post-doctoral fellow in the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at Washington State University and was appointed Research Assistant Professor in 1995.  Later that year he came to Boston University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2003.