How are food and cocaine linked?

20 June 2013

Interview with

Dr Karen Ersche, Cambridge University

And closing this month's show, we return to Dr. Karen Ersche from the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge to find out what's keeping her inspired with her research.

Karen -   So, here in Cambridge, we are quite fortunate to have a strong community working on animal models of addiction.  So, we know quite well how addiction develops, thanks to these animal models.  

There is now another problem or epidemic developing and this is the epidemic of obesity.  Well, there's an on-going discussion whether the model that works to explain addiction can also be applied to people who suffer from obesity or eats compulsively and the discussion is still on-going and also, the scientific evidence is debatable.  

But what I find striking is that the people who are addicted to elicit drugs like Cakespeople addicted to cocaine, nobody has ever looked at what they are actually eating.  So, although their model or their disorder is applied to another disorder, to obesity, very little is known how drug users really eat.

And so, I just, because I'm doing research in cocaine addiction, I thought I'll have a closer look of what my participants are eating and I noticed that there's a widely held misconception about what people with cocaine dependence eat because in the short term, cocaine has appetite suppressing effects.  Some people don't eat when they're on the drug, but when the effects wear out, people do eat.  

I noticed that they actually eat a lot of fat, but they are not overweight.  So, this is quite surprising and remarkable and so, I had a closer look and I have done a study where I also measured body composition and had a closer look at people's diets.  What it shows is that people with cocaine dependence, they don't put on weight and it seems that this might be an effect that cocaine exerts on their metabolism.  So, it speeds up their metabolism that they don't put on weight.  But when they stop, the do put on weight and they put on a lot of weight and they've also developed a habit of eating very fatty food which obviously makes you put on a lot of fat.  That has an important impact on recovery because putting on weight when you are trying to get your life back in order is certainly not going to help.

Hannah -   So, you found this after the blue result that links cocaine use with changing metabolism and almost like a craving for fat?

Karen -   Well, I'm looking into this now and my research is to understand a person who has developed an addiction and to understand this person in the more holistic way by looking at their drug use and their compulsive use, and their addiction, but their addiction also has implications on what they eat, how healthy they are, on their immune system, on their sleeping patterns, on their well-being.  

It may look that we are only looking at one little aspect of their life, but in fact, the deeper you dig into a problem, the more you understand the bigger picture.  Also, hopefully, the easier it will be to help people to really live a more worthwhile life.

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