Even Short-Term Oxycodone Use Linked to Opioid Addiction
Brief, legitimate oxycodone consumption can trigger brain changes that increase long-term susceptibility for opioid addiction, a new study finds.
Oxycodone is a powerful opioid substance that serves as an active ingredient in several well-known opioid-based medications prescribed for pain relief and other limited purposes. Anyone who uses an opioid medication or drug can potentially develop the symptoms of opioid addiction. However, according to the results of a study on rodents published in November 2014 in the journal Learning and Memory, even brief use of oxycodone can increase the likelihood that any given individual will ultimately meet the criteria used for diagnosing opioid addiction.
Oxycodone is made under laboratory conditions from a substance called thebaine, which occurs naturally in the opium poppy plant. The medication comes in two basic forms: a rapid-release version that quickly produces its maximum effect inside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and a slow-release version that produces its effect over time. Doctors primarily use oxycodone to treat people affected by moderate or severe pain symptoms that don’t respond adequately to less powerful types of treatment. Well-known branded products that contain the medication include OxyContin (which contains only oxycodone hydrochloride as an active ingredient), Percocet (which contains a mixture of oxycodone and acetaminophen) and Percodan (which contains a mixture of oxycodone and aspirin).
OxyContin, in particular, is heavily associated with a rise in prescription opioid abuse that began in the 1990s. However, the makers of this branded medication changed its formula in 2013 to reduce the potential for abuse. Specifically, OxyContin’s manufacturers made the medication harder to crush and turn into a powder. As a rule, a person who abuses a powdered form of OxyContin or any other opioid medication originally produced in pill or tablet form increases his or her chances of developing an opioid addiction or otherwise encountering seriously harmful consequences.
OxyContin and other opioid substances have the potential to produce addiction because they heavily increase feelings of euphoria inside the brain’s pleasure center. When the level of the brain chemical responsible for triggering euphoria is repeatedly altered, an opioid user can undergo a change in daily brain function that leads to the development of physical opioid dependence. Opioid dependence and opioid addiction are separate conditions. However, any person affected by opioid dependence (a physical need to keep using opioids, which can appear even in legitimate medication consumers) can potentially progress into opioid addiction (an uncontrolled pattern of opioid consumption that seriously impairs the ability to function normally and experience a sense of well-being).
Is Oxycodone Specifically Risky?
In the study published in Learning and Memory, U.S. researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai used laboratory experiments on rats to gauge the risks of oxycodone use as a pathway to the development of opioid addiction. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if even short-term use of the medication can alter normal memory processes inside the brain and increase involvement in habitual, nonflexible patterns of behavior. Maintenance of nonflexible behavior, in particular, is associated with increased chances of developing an addictive pattern of substance use. During the study, a group of rats received access to small doses of oxycodone for five days; a comparison group of rats received a placebo saline solution instead of oxycodone. The doses of medication supplied to the first group of rats were intended to mimic the amount given to a legitimate human user recovering from surgery in a hospital.
After exposing the rats to oxycodone, the researchers conducted tests designed to measure memory and the ability to take part in a flexible decision-making process. After completing an analysis of these tests, they concluded that, compared to the rats only exposed to a placebo saline solution, the rats exposed to mild, short-term doses of oxycodone exhibited a notable decline in their ability to think flexibly and adapt to changing circumstances. This finding held true even after enough time passed to render the affected rats completely free from any circulating oxycodone in their bloodstreams.
The study’s authors emphasize the fact that not all of the oxycodone-affected rats had an equally hard time thinking flexibly and making appropriate decisions. However, the overall level of difficulty was high enough for them to view even short-term oxycodone consumption as a risk factor for the development of an opioid addiction.
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