Drug addiction is a massive menace that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe. Drugs like heroin, cocaine and crack affect the functioning of the brain, temporarily giving it a feeling of joyous bliss or euphoria. The neurotransmitters and receptors associated with pleasure are activated by these drugs, giving users the intense feeling of happiness.

But, this feeling cannot be sustained by the brain for long, and it tries to normalize things by increasing the receptor activity required to give the ecstasy. This reaction of the brain triggers what we call “drug tolerance” in users, who respond by increasing dosage to get the same results.

Vaccines are being developed to block the entry of drug molecules into the brain and prevent the “high” response in users, thus making drugs less rewarding. Here are a few things you need to know about a vaccine that has been in the making for several years but is now nearing the human trial phase.

1. Is the Brain Being Messed With?

This is a big misconception associated with anti-addiction vaccines.

The vaccine will not alter the structure of the brain. The molecules in the vaccine bind with the drug molecule, making it too big to pass through the brain-blood barrier. Prolonged drug use overloads the reward centre of the brain with false stimuli. As a result, the brain loses its ability to feel pleasure in normal activities and becomes unable to stop heightened pain receptivity.

Drug addiction cannot be cured or controlled easily because the brain has undergone permanent changes due to the sustained use of drugs. The incredible increase in receptor activity makes the addict vulnerable to agonizingly high pain perception when the drugs are withdrawn. Though drugs that can reduce the withdrawal symptoms are available, they are not always useful.

Once the vaccines are administered, the drugs become less rewarding to users because they do not reach or alter the brain. If the vaccines are used by those who are not addicted, they will find drug use less stimulating or rewarding, and absolutely not worth the trouble of taking them.

2. Finance and Funding Is Hard to Come By

Funding for clinical trials for anti-addiction vaccines is not easy to come by. Top pharmaceutical companies see this as a potential marketing disaster, where their name will get dragged into touchy and controversial territory.

Also, several previous trials have not had very encouraging results.

A 2014 trial for a cocaine vaccine yielded poor results and so did an even earlier trial for vaccines to help curb nicotine addiction in smokers. When there are no past successes to show, it becomes harder to get federal and institutional funding.

3. What Are the Challenges to Effective Use of Anti-Drug Vaccines?

Dr. Kim Janda is of the opinion that drug addiction is not a moral failure on the part of the patient; addiction is actually a condition brought about by the changes that take place in the brain. Increase in receptor activity needed to trigger pleasure, higher vulnerability to pain and loss of grip over conscious control and motivation are a few ways in which the brain adapts to drug use. These permanent changes make abstinence physically agonizing.

Patients, as well as the medical community, cannot consider a vaccine as a magic bullet that can undo years of substance abuse in one shot. Also, the vaccine may not have the same effect on everyone. A person who has taken the shot may try something at a party and realize that he is not immune, leading to a possible relapse.

Vaccines are created to protect the user from the effects of a particular drug. It is not possible to vaccinate against every drug, and it is possible that the person may switch to another drug to get the high he or she is craving.

Most addicted people display a range of other deeper problems like depression, anxiety and mental illnesses, which need to be dealt with along with rehabilitation from addiction. Vaccines alone cannot deal with the entire spectrum of health problems faced by addicts. They can only be used in tandem with therapy, counseling and other treatment measures like home drug testing kits to ensure the person stays sober.

Some experts are also of the opinion that vaccines can be used by parents on children to prevent future substance abuse. But by doing so, elders are altering body chemistry of the child to prevent something that they disapprove from happening, which is not exactly ideal.

4. How Do Vaccines Help Improve the Bigger Picture?

Anti-addiction vaccines can be a powerful tool in the hands of medical professionals to help in their fight to cure addiction. Vaccines also bring about general awareness that addiction is a medical condition that can be prevented, just like the flu or tetanus. This will gradually help remove the stigma around addiction and treatment and enable faster recovery among those affected. 

Anti-addiction vaccines will take some time to be available in the market. But, continued support of vaccine research, along with development and trials, are extremely crucial to support the recovery and the rehabilitation of addicts.

Nicole Gomez is a digital content manager at TestCountry. She is involved in drug addiction support groups for recovering addicts and their families. She is passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and helping others do so as well. When she isn’t working she enjoys hiking, reading and cooking for friends and family.

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