Brain reprogramming to 'cure' addicts

A childhood vaccine against addiction and drug-impregnated clothing are part of scientists' visions of the future
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The Independent Online

The brains of drug users and alcoholics should be "reprogrammed" to cure them of their addictions, according to leading scientists.

This is among the controversial proposals to be put before ministers by experts commissioned to investigate how scientific breakthroughs will affect society in the future.

They predict that doctors will be able to help men and women hooked on drugs to unlearn their life-threatening habits by altering the human body's neuro-transmitters, which carry messages around the brain.

Other radical ideas to be put forward this week include clinicians being able to use anti-addiction vaccines to inject children who are at risk of becoming smokers or drug users. Childhood immunisation would provide adults with protection from the euphoria that is experienced by users, making drugs such as heroin and cocaine pointless to take.

Such vaccinations are already being developed by pharmaceutical companies and are expected to become commercially available within a matter of years. The British biotechnology firm Xenova, for example, has carried out trials on an anti-cocaine virus that have produced encouraging results.

Drug addiction costs the country £12bn a year, according to official figures, and the Government is eager to find new ways of halting this spiralling problem. Cigarette smoking and alcohol misuse are huge causes of premature death.

A national immunisation programme to curb drug addiction is one of the proposals to have emerged from the Foresight programme, which was set up by the Department of Trade and Industry and is led by science minister Lord Sainsbury. The aim of the programme, which includes the Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs project, is to predict how new technologies and discoveries might affect society in 20 years' time.

Mood-enhancing prescription drugs will be in the future be available "off-label", that is, without clinical need, according to other research. The country's leading brain experts conclude that drugs that can improve intelligence and memory will become increasingly available for people who do not have a medical problem but who want to be more effective at work and in their daily lives.

These drugs include Modafinil, which is prescribed for narcolepsy - a medical disorder where people fall asleep without warning - but has also been used by defence agencies to help troops stay awake during long missions.

Another is Ritalin, which is currently prescribed by doctors to children and adults who have disorders that make them disruptive and hyperactive but is already being used illicitly by students before exams to help them concentrate.

Another prediction from the Foresight programme is that pharmaceutical companies may develop new ways of delivering medicinal drugs and legalised pleasure-enhancing drugs directly into the system, through impregnated clothing.

The Department of Health stressed that the findings would not be adopted necessarily as government policy but would form a valuable document that ministers could refer to when planning new strategies.

A spokeswoman said: "We hope that these findings will give us guidance about what could possibly happen in the future and give us some guidelines about how we can respond to certain issues like addiction."