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Self-administration of cocaine, cannabis and heroin in the human laboratory: benefits and pitfalls

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The objective of this review is to describe self-administration procedures for modeling addiction to cocaine, cannabis and heroin in the human laboratory, the benefits and pitfalls of the approach, and the methodological issues unique to each drug. In addition, the predictive validity of the model for testing treatment medications will be addressed. The results show that all three drugs of abuse are reliably and robustly self-administered by non-treatment-seeking research volunteers. In terms of pharmacotherapies, cocaine use is extraordinarily difficult to disrupt either in the laboratory or in the clinic. A range of medications has been shown to significantly decrease cocaine's subjective effects and craving without decreasing either cocaine self-administration or cocaine abuse by patients. These negative data combined with recent positive findings with modafinil suggest that self-administration procedures are an important intermediary step between pre-clinical and clinical studies. In terms of cannabis, a recent study suggests that medications that improve sleep and mood during cannabis withdrawal decrease the resumption of marijuana self-administration in abstinent volunteers. Clinical data on patients seeking treatment for their marijuana use are needed to validate these laboratory findings. Finally, in contrast to cannabis or cocaine dependence, there are three efficacious Food and Drug Administration-approved medications to treat opioid dependence, all of which decrease both heroin self-administration and subjective effects in the human laboratory. In summary, self-administration procedures provide meaningful behavioral data in a small number of individuals. These studies contribute to our understanding of the variables maintaining cocaine, marijuana and heroin intake, and are important in guiding the development of more effective drug treatment programs.
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Keywords: Addiction; dependence; marijuana; opioid; reinforcement; validity

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2009

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