FSU researcher examines ways cocaine alters gene expression

New research from Florida State University identifies a novel gene that plays a functional role in cocaine addiction.  

In a new paper in the journal Biological Psychiatry, Assistant Professor of Biological Science Jian Feng and his colleagues reveal that cocaine use in mice resulted in changes to what’s called long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), a major type of ribonucleic acid that is transcribed, but not translated into protein. While the functional significance of lncRNAs remains elusive, scientists do know, however, that they play a regulatory role in gene expression.  

DNA – artistic visualization. Image credit: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, free licence

Though gene expression underlies various forms of brain function and disorders, scientists have mostly focused on coding genes, the ones that are translated into proteins. The role of long noncoding RNA in the brain, particularly drug addiction, is not well understood yet,” Feng said. “Over the past decade, people recognized tens of thousands of lncRNAs, with many of them expressed specifically in the brain, which suggests their pivotal role in neural function.”  

In the experiments, scientists observed that cocaine specifically affected a long noncoding RNA named Gas5. When cocaine was administered, it decreased the expression of this gene. In contrast, if Gas5 was manipulated to overperform, it led to decreased cocaine intake and decreased compulsive-like behavior to acquire cocaine.  

“We saw this decrease in gene expression with cocaine and so then we really wanted to understand the molecular underpinnings of that,” Feng said.  

In this study, they demonstrate that Gas5 alone mediates numerous gene expression changes, which significantly overlap with the ones altered by cocaine administration.  

Feng’s laboratory at FSU focuses mostly on epigenetics and genes affected by drug addiction. In this study, he is particularly interested in the role long noncoding RNA plays in that process, something that could have long-term implications in how scientists and health care professionals investigate treatment and rehabilitation.  

“We really want to improve people’s understanding of what this RNA does and hopefully that will lead to more studies and eventually better treatments,” Feng said.  

About 14.7% of Americans ages 12 and older have tried cocaine at some point in their life, according to the research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  

Source: Florida State University