John Wang, of the University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Medicine, and his colleagues published their findings in the December 7, 2006, issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.
Neurons trigger nerve impulses in their neighbors by launching bursts of chemicals called neurotransmitters at them. The neurotransmitters activate protein receptors on the receiving neurons, which induce the nerve impulses in the receiving cell. These receptors also adjust themselves in complex ways to alter the sensitivity of the receiving neuron to stimulation.
Researchers had long known that cocaine affects both dopamine and glutamate receptors on neurons, but the molecular details of those effects were unknown. In their experiments, Wang and colleagues first determined that cocaine reduces the activation of glutamate-responsive neurons by affecting a specific component, or subunit, of the receptor, called NR2B.
Further experiments revealed that when rats were given cocaine, a specific subunit of dopamine receptors, called D2R, tended to attach to the NR2B subunit and was responsible for preventing the normal activation of the glutamate receptor. Such activation normally involves addition to NR2B of a molecular group called a phosphate by an enzyme called a kinase, and the cocaine-induced D2R attachment blocked this event.
Wang and his colleagues found that this interaction