How Do You Get Rats Off Coke? With Lasers

New experiments have been able to zap addictions right out of rodent brains. The next step is to find a way to make it work on people.

How Do You Get Rats Off Coke? With Lasers
Rat via Shutterstock

Scientists have figured out a new technique to get coke-head lab rats off of blow: by zapping their brain with a laser. While it sounds like an extreme way to treat drug addiction–certainly more so than, say, Alcohol Anonymous meetings and finding a new hobby–researchers are beginning to ask whether a similar treatment could work in humans.


According to PopSci:

Researchers from institutions in Maryland and California offered rats levers that, when pressed, would give them infusions of cocaine. After more than eight weeks of the free coke, however, the researchers starting giving the rats a shock in the foot alongside the drug. For some rats, the shock made them reduce their lever-pressing. Others soldiered on, however, in spite of the consequences.

Once the rats were thoroughly addicted and began to see the negative consequences of their habit, the true fun began. Past studies have shown that rats (and humans) who are “compulsively addicted to cocaine” have low brain activity in the “prefrontal cortex–a brain region fundamental for impulse control, decision making and behavioral flexibility,” according to a press release. “To test whether altering the activity in this brain region could impact addiction, [the researchers] employed a technique called optogenetics to shut the activity on and off using a laser.”

Could controlling addiction be as easy as flicking a light switching? Turns out “turning on these cells wiped out the compulsive behavior, while switching them off turned the nonaddicted ones into addicted, researchers found.”

An important caveat: to get the rat brain to respond to the lasers, first the researchers had to insert light-sensitive proteins into the rats’ prefrontal cortex using genetic engineering. That means laser therapy won’t ever be something used on human brains, but a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation can have a similar affect.

The same group of researchers intends to begin clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a matter of weeks on human coke addicts to test: whether they can bring back life to the part of the brain associated with impulse control, and whether this helps get addicts off the drug.

The study came out in the journal Nature earlier this week and was a collaboration between researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the NIH.

About the author

Zak Stone is a Los Angeles-based writer and a contributing editor of Playboy Digital. His writing has appeared in,, Los Angeles, The Utne Reader, GOOD, and elsewhere.