Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California claim to have developed a vaccine which could be effective in treating addiction to heroin. This comes as potentially good news for the field of addiction treatment, since heroin addiction is widely accepted to be among the most powerful types of drug addiction. For example, a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet ranked heroin as being both the most addictive and also the most dangerous of all illicit drugs. Heroin withdrawals are also famous as being the worst of any kind, and indeed they are the source of the term “cold turkey,” as in “quitting cold turkey” and experiencing the chills and clammy skin. People who have experienced heroin withdrawals will often describe the sensation as being hellish and tortuous. In fact, the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin can even be fatal in extreme cases. Quitting heroin is often something that an addict does more than once, since it is enormously difficult to beat this type of addiction and many people will find themselves relapsing sooner or later. In light of the challenges of beating heroin addiction, the proposed vaccine seems to bring hope to many.
How The Heroin Vaccine Works
The vaccine is supposed to work by essentially blocking heroin from having any effect on the brain. Normally, heroin derives its powerful effects from the fact that it increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, with the result that the user experiences pleasure, a sense of well-being, or even euphoria. By injecting inactive heroin molecules into the bloodstream, the vaccine is thought to train the immune system into attacking these molecules, with the result that they are unable to reach the brain and achieve their normal effects.
The results of the study were published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and they describe the manner in which heroin-addicted rats were found to have an indifferent attitude towards heroin after being injected with the vaccine. The rats were placed in withdrawals by withholding their normal supply of heroin for a period, and those which had received the vaccine did not relapse in the same way as the unvaccinated rats did when the heroin supply was reintroduced. Presumably, the vaccine works to “cure” the addiction to heroin. The researchers acknowledged, however, that such a solution would be only part of the answer, stating that “ideally for human patients the vaccine would be given with other treatments.”
Does the vaccine solve the problem of heroin addiction?
Even if the vaccine is found to be 100 percent effective in humans, the researchers are correct stating that it would not fully address the problem of addiction to heroin. Drug addiction is a more complex problem than simply the physical dependence which tends to develop with repeated use of a drug. At least as important to consider is the emotional dependence. Most people who become addicted to drugs when they are using the drugs as a way to escape pressures and stress in their life.
As they continue to use the drug, they increasingly associate it with relief, relaxation and happiness, until they reach a point where they can no longer feel normal without getting high. Even if a person gets vaccinated and is no longer susceptible to the physiological effects of heroin, he or she will still need help in addressing the emotional aspects of the addiction. Unless he or she handles this side of the problem, it will persist and may lead to other types of addiction in the future. Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency in today’s society to look for the easiest solution — even when it is not a full solution — by taking a pill or getting a shot, rather than fully addressing the problems that people face. Whether or not the new vaccine proves to be useful in addiction treatment remains to be seen.
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