Review Article

Environmental, genetic and epigenetic contributions to cocaine addiction

  • Neuropsychopharmacologyvolume 43pages14711480 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41386-018-0008-x
  • Download Citation


Decades of research on cocaine has produced volumes of data that have answered many important questions about the nature of this highly addictive drug. Sadly, none of this information has translated into the development of effective therapies for the treatment of cocaine addiction. This review endeavors to assess the current state of cocaine research in an attempt to identify novel pathways for therapeutic development. For example, risk of cocaine addiction is highly heritable but genome-wide analyses comparing cocaine-dependent individuals to controls have not resulted in promising targets for drug development. Is this because the genetics of addiction is too complex or because the existing research methodologies are inadequate? Likewise, animal studies have revealed dozens of enduring changes in gene expression following prolonged exposure to cocaine, none of which have translated into therapeutics either because the resulting compounds were ineffective or produced intolerable side-effects. Recently, attention has focused on epigenetic modifications resulting from repeated cocaine intake, some of which appear to be heritable through changes in the germline. While epigenetic changes represent new vistas for therapeutic development, selective manipulation of epigenetic marks is currently challenging even in animals such that translational potential is a distant prospect. This review will reveal that despite the enormous progress made in understanding the molecular and physiological bases of cocaine addiction, there is much that remains a mystery. Continued advances in genetics and molecular biology hold potential for revealing multiple pathways toward the development of treatments for the continuing scourge of cocaine addiction.

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Author information


  1. Department of Psychiatry, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 19104, USA

    • R. Christopher Pierce
    • , Bruno Fant
    • , Sarah E. Swinford-Jackson
    •  & Wade H. Berrettini
  2. Department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 19104, USA

    • Elizabeth A. Heller
  3. Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, 19122, USA

    • Mathieu E. Wimmer


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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Christopher Pierce.