Grasp of underlying molecular mechanisms could improve addiction recovery efforts

Irvine, Calif., Feb. 11, 2015 — The ravaged faces of methamphetamine addicts tell a terrible tale – abusing the drug dramatically accelerates aging. Now scientists from UC Irvine and the Italian Institute of Technology have discovered how this occurs at the cellular level and identified methods to limit the process.

With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to probe the effects of methamphetamine on the “lipidome” (the complete lipid profile of representative organs and tissues) in rats that self-administer the drug, UCI’s Daniele Piomelli and his IIT colleagues found that its use caused abnormalities in cellular fat metabolism, triggering extreme inflammation marked by a considerable rise in the formation of ceramides, pro-inflammatory molecules that can foster cell aging and death.

Study results appear in the open-access online journal PLOS ONELink to study.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive psychostimulant that profoundly damages the brain and other body organs. Postmortem examinations of human tissues have linked use of the drug to diseases associated with aging, such as coronary atherosclerosis and pulmonary fibrosis, but the molecular mechanisms underlying these findings have remained unknown.

The Piomelli team learned that this cellular cascade involves the recruitment of nuclear factor kappa beta, a protein that under healthy conditions helps control DNA encoding of proteins. But as the cell is flooded with methamphetamine-induced signaling, nuclear factor kappa beta triggers excessive signaling in pathways that engender dramatic increases in ceramide activity.

“We found this signaling process to be key for advanced cellular aging, which is at the heart of the accelerated aging influenced by methamphetamine abuse,” said Piomelli, the Louise Turner Arnold Chair in the Neurosciences.

Having identified these mechanisms, the researchers tested existing inhibitors of nuclear factor kappa beta signaling, which succeeded in limiting ceramide formation. This prevented methamphetamine-induced cell aging and systemic inflammation in rats self-administering the drug, curtailing their health deterioration.

“These results suggest new therapeutic strategies to reduce the adverse consequences of methamphetamine abuse and improve the effectiveness of abstinence treatments,” Piomelli said.

He is currently working with colleagues at the Italian Institute of Technology, in Genoa, to create a pharmaceutical application of these inhibitor compounds.

Giuseppe Astarita and Agnesa Avanesian-Thomas of UCI; Benedetto Grimaldi, Natalia Realini and Abdul Basit of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia; and Zuzana Justinova, Leigh V. Panlilio and Steven R. Goldberg of the National Institute on Drug Abuse contributed to the study – supported by NIDA through grant RC2 DA028902 and its intramural research program.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy.

Media access: Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UC Irvine faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UC Irvine news, visit Additional resources for journalists may be found at