Triggering One Brain Molecule at a Time with Opiates

Drug Test equipmentThere are many types of illicit drugs, and each one triggers the release of dopamine in a different way. As far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s, Amphetamines, opioids, cocaine, cannabis and alcohol have been found to work on what is called the nucleus accumbens brain structures. However, it was not until more than 10 years later that it was proved they produce rapid and large increases in dopamine or reduce the reuptake of dopamine from synapse.1 Since then, much more has been learned about dopamine signalling, transporter blocking, and so on. With the advent of technology and the ability to better track and identify the progress of illicit drugs in the body, fascinating new study results are now regularly reported by medical researchers working in laboratories around the world. Just recently, Canadian scientists discovered an addiction switch triggered in the brain by opiates.

The Addiction Research Group at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada not only discovered an addiction switch. Remarkably, they were able to track the molecular process of opiate addiction in the brain. The study was first published in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience and reflects the growing ability of scientists to literally track molecule movements and actions. In this case, the results of the study link the past research on activity in the brain reward systems to opiates.2

Pulling the Switch for Opiate Addiction

It has been known that opiates influence brain systems functioning. However, this newest study reports the scientists were able to identify a specific memory molecule in the basolateral amygdale brain region. This is the region that has been associated with controlling the powerful reward memories connected to opiate addiction. Though the research used a rodent opiate addiction model, the findings represent an important step in identifying the molecular process of addiction and withdrawal. The neuroscientists discovered that an opiate addict experiencing withdrawal from the drug goes through a process in which a switch between two molecular pathways is triggered. Withdrawal in this case refers to the opiate wearing off. The molecular pathways control opiate addiction memories.

When a person is not dependent on opiates, a molecule called extracellular signal-related kinase is involved in the early stage development of addiction memories. Once addicted to opiates, there is a switch to a different memory pathway controlled by a different molecule. The addiction molecule is named calmodulin-dependent kinase II.

Switching Back to a Productive Life

Why do employers care? Australia has taken a position of harm minimisation and restoration of a person’s ability to productively function in society. There have been numerous global reports that the “War on Drugs” has failed with its system of arrests and imprisonment, so Australia has been on the right track. What each new research study is proving, like the Canadian study, is that people addicted to drugs are experiencing a process in their brain that leads to loss of control over behaviour the longer illicit drugs are used. They are not just choosing to be drug addicts. They are driven to use drugs through molecular processes.

When a random drug test indicates someone is using opiates, informed employers realise their worker may be an addict and thus needs help. Some people question the cost of employer EAP programs or claim that once an addict, always an addict. That is simply not true. Researchers believe the science will reach a point where legal, novel drugs can be developed to target specific addiction processes at the molecular level. Once a worker has switched off the addiction, a return to employment is possible.

Returning people to pre-addiction status and helping employers retain valuable Human Resources talent is the ultimate goal of an effective drug program. Everyone wins in that scenario. However, the research studies also prove once again that drug testing is a critical safety procedure and the best method for keeping illicit substances out of the workplace. People using powerful opiates and other illicit drugs are not “thinking clearly” so it is up to the employer to find the drug users and take appropriate action.

CMM Technology ( supplies employers with high quality drug testing supplies able to detect the most commonly used illicit drugs. They include the DrugWipe 5S, the popular Oraline Saliva Drug Test, and the Alere DDS2 Saliva Testing System. There is also a range of alcohol testing products available for use in the workplace.


  1. Adrian Carter, Wayne Hall, Den Capps, Mark Daglish. (2009, January 30). Neurobiological Research on Addiction – A Review of the Scientific, Public Health and Social Policy Implications for Australia. Retrieved from Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy:
  2. Danika Lyons, Xavier De Jaeger, Laura G. Rosen, Tasha Ahmad, Nicole M. Lauzon, Jordan Zunder, Lique M. Coolen, Walter Rushlow, and Steven R. Laviolette. Opiate Exposure and Withdrawal Induces a Molecular Memory Switch in the Basolateral Amygdala between ERK1/2 and CaMKIIα-Dependent Signaling Substrates. The Journal of Neuroscience, September 2013

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