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Addiction Facts, Drug Addiction, Facts About Addiction, Substance Abuse  |  May 01, 2020

It is a well-known fact that antibiotic overuse is leading to a sharp rise in the number of antibiotic resistance organisms – often referred to as super-bugs.

Researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine recently investigated another possible problem associated with antibiotic use. In particular, they wanted to know whether antibiotic use changes the way the brain manages drug use and withdrawal.

The answer appears to be yes, and the reasons may surprise you.

To conduct this study, the research team studied the impact antibiotics had on a population of rats who were already addicted to the opioid oxycodone.

One group of rats was fed enough antibiotics to deplete 80% of their gut biome.  The control group was kept antibiotic-free.

Each group of rats was then allowed to go into a state of withdrawal.

Superficially, the researchers could see no difference between the two rat populations.

It wasn't until the team looked at the rats' brains that they saw something odd. The pattern of neuron recruitment during the phases of intoxication and withdrawal in the rats treated with antibiotics was very different.

The antibiotics had depleted the bacteria in the guts of these rats – and yet the scientists were seeing changes in their brain function too.

According to the researchers:

"…during intoxication, rats with depleted gut microbes had more activated neurons in the regions of the brain that regulate stress and pain and regions involved in opioid intoxication and withdrawal. During withdrawal, microbe-depleted rats had fewer activated neurons in the central amygdala, as compared to rats with normal gut microbiomes… a decrease in neurons recruited in the central amygdala could result in fewer painful withdrawal symptoms, which can, in turn, lead to a higher risk of drug abuse… in the end, it became clear that, at least in rats, gut microbes alter the way the brain responds to drugs."

Where might this research lead?

For one thing, the data suggests there is a strong link between gut and brain function – a fact that other research continues to confirm.  The health of our human biome (the 100 trillion bacterium that live in and on us) appears to be increasingly central to good health.

In terms of addiction, we may now be learning that the health of one's gut biome has a direct impact on how one responds to drugs in general and opioids in particular. This understanding may, in time, alter how antibiotics and painkillers are co-prescribed.  It may also contribute to changes in physician antibiotic prescribing habits in general.

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