Western University neuroscientists have added an important tool to the toolbox in our understanding of drug addiction, identifying a way that opiate addiction develops in the brain.

Opiates like oxycontin and heroin have a powerful hold on people, so making inroads in addiction research is very important, according to those on the front lines of treatment like Pam Hill.

The director of addiction services for Thames Valley says "We are excited about this piece of the puzzle and the way that science contributes to the understanding of the brain and what's happening when a person develops an addiction.”

Western researcher Dr. Steven LaViolette looked at how a region of the brain called the amygdala was impacted by exposure to opiates in rats.

"What we found was that there was actually a molecular memory switch that was switched on in the addiction state in the amygdala.”

Changes to the brain were apparent in opiate addiction when environmental triggers were present.

"This is the control levels and in the chronically exposed rats we see that this protein expression is almost completely gone," LaViolette says.

Methadone is the front line treatment for opiate addiction, and it's hoped this research will expand the treatment options.

LaViolette adds "The really important thing is to characterize novel molecular targets for the development of drugs that could actually go in and target those memories specifically in these brain areas."

The simple fact is that addiction is a complicated problem, involving not only physiological factors but psychological and social ones as well.

Hill says "Reducing the stigma attached to both using and the stigma that’s attached to seeking help is really very important."

The Western research appears in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.