Abigail Klein Leichman
July 6, 2023, Updated July 12, 2023

In a study that could have significant implications for addressing the opioid crisis, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that manipulating specific types of brain cells inhibits the urge for the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of American drug-related deaths last year involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is mixed with cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or other illegal drugs. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and as little as two milligrams can cause an overdose.

The study, published in Current Biology, focused on claustral neurons and their direct influence on opioid intake. The claustrum is a small subcortical nucleus that connects with large regions of the cortex, as well as with many subcortical and midbrain structures. 

The researchers discovered that claustral neurons exhibited distinctive activity patterns when fentanyl was consumed by lab mice.

Manipulating these neurons allowed the researchers to modulate the amount of fentanyl the mice ingested. Activating the neurons inhibited drug consumption while suppressing the same neurons escalated drug intake.

“Our findings shed light on the intricate relationship between the brain and fentanyl consumption,” said lead investigator Prof. Ami Citri from Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences.

“Understanding the role of claustral neurons in regulating the urge to consume opioids offers a new avenue for interventions aimed at curbing addiction.”  

The researchers believe that future study of the claustrum’s function in different stages of the addiction process could help those struggling with active addiction and lead to the development of drug therapies.

Other researchers at Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences who contributed to the study include Anna Terem, and Yonatan Fatal. Fatal initiated the project as a high-school student.

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