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A finding about the role of a protein in the brain that influences behavior may hold clues to addiction-like behaviors, a study in mice suggests. The research could help scientists searching for more effective addiction treatments, according to Science Daily.

The protein, known as MAPK, contributes to the risk for addiction and depression-like symptoms. Researchers found when the brain is exposed to stress, the brain releases hormones that set off a reaction of events, including activation of MAPK, that lead to depression-like and drug-seeking behavior in the mice. Those mice that had received shots of cocaine before being stressed returned more often to the place where they had gotten the drug, the researchers reported in the journal Neuron.

When the researchers disabled the MAPK protein, stress-exposed mice did not display depression-like or drug-seeking behavior. In a news release, lead researcher Michael R. Bruchas, PhD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said he plans to test whether the MAPK protein is also involved when mice are given nicotine or amphetamine.

“It will be important to determine whether this pathway is conserved for drugs of abuse other than cocaine,” Dr. Bruchas said. “If so it will further highlight the importance of working with chemists to target this pathway for potential therapies.”

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