Jan. 20, 2022 – There are 100 billion neurons to map, that’s 10-times the amount of stars in the sky. But Kasthuri and his team started their mission in a smaller model: A mouse. 

“We then compared mice never exposed to cocaine to mice that had one maybe two exposures,” he said.

Three days later, thousands of nano-sized slices of mouse brain were magnified under a high-powered electron microscope. The high-resolution images, 100 terabytes, worth of data were then fed to a supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory that translated the information for human consumption.

“We saw dramatic physical changes in the circuitry of the brain after just one exposure to cocaine and just a few days after,” Kasthuri said. The research team honed in on dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. It’s released in a controlled manner when you engage in something that evokes pleasure, like eating, exercise or intimacy. When you take a drug like cocaine, dopamine neurons are activated all over the brain – producing too much of a good thing.

“It’s the system that drugs of abuse highjack,” Kasthuri said. “So when you take drugs like cocaine, it increases the amount of dopamine in your system. And it’s one of the reasons we become addicted to it because we associate it with pleasure and joy.”


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