Alaina Sonksen is a senior at Camdenton High School in Missouri. She won the 3rd place 2013 Addiction Science Award. Her project looked at how two types of bath salts affect the activity, feeding patterns, and death of fruit flies. After receiving her award, she told the writers of the Sara Bellum Blog about herself and her winning project.
What inspired you to research addiction science?
My science research instructor and mentor was Mr. Christopher Reeves. At the end of my sophomore year, Mr. Reeves recruited several underclassmen that he thought would thrive in science research. As far as my specific project, my parents gave me the idea. They attended a local town hall meeting, and the topic was on synthetic substances. After returning from the meeting, they encouraged me to share the harms of these drugs with my school and community in some way. At first, I was skeptical. After all, what can one high school student do? So I dropped it. Then, last fall, I was scrambling around trying to think of a science research topic. My parents brought up the idea of synthetic substances once more, and I was immediately taken with the idea. I certainly had an interesting and relevant science research project, and I'm so glad they encouraged me to pursue synthetic substances as an area of study.
What were some of the challenges you faced while doing your research for the Addiction Science Awards?
Time was the biggest challenge with my project. It was extremely hard to do everything in just a few short months. Science research overall was a bit of a challenge for me because science has never been my favorite subject. I was definitely out of my comfort zone participating in science research. As hard as it was, I am extremely glad that I chose to do science research.
What were some of the most exciting things you learned from doing your research?
So many great things came from it. I was pretty proud of myself for accomplishing what I did in science research in such a short amount of time—especially without the help of a university. Of course, I can't forget the awesome rewards that came from it! I never thought I would do so well or go so far with my project, so I was ecstatic that my hard work actually paid off! Even more important than the awards, though, were the friends that I made at the science research competitions. I can't express how thankful I am that science research brought us together. For me, that alone was the greatest reward of science research this year.
Do you plan on studying science and continuing research in the future?
I will not be studying a scientific field in college. Although I had a fun and rewarding experience conducting the experiment that won an Addiction Science Award, my passion lies elsewhere. I am considering studying English, education, or even business and marketing. I am still undecided. Even though I will not be pursuing a career in science, I am glad that I participated. It challenged and stretched me, and it broadened my horizons in many ways. I know that those life lessons will be applicable to whatever I choose to do with my life and career.
Do you have any recommendations for high school students interested in doing their own research?
To any students that are interested in science research ... Do it!
It will challenge you, it will teach you, and it will reward you if you work hard. If you have a passion for science, I highly recommend it. There's no better thing you can do as a young, science-minded person than to participate in science research.
Euphoria: A feeling of well-being or elation.
Euphoria is that excitement you get from getting a perfect score on a test, or attention from someone you have a crush on. It can come from a roller coaster ride or as the rush from a physical activity like downhill skiing, especially the first time. These feelings of euphoria are all healthy and natural.
What's not healthy or natural is taking drugs to feel "euphoric." Drugs of abuse artificially produce euphoria by manipulating your brain chemistry to make it seem that something exciting is happening. To get this feeling again, you may choose to use the drugs again-and again. And that can lead to craving and addiction.
Over time, the brain needs more of the drug to get the same feelings of pleasure. Why? The drug causes surges, like waves, of the brain chemical dopamine, which initially produce the euphoria. After repeated hits, though, the brain adjusts to this higher level of dopamine by making less of it and by reducing the number of receptors that can receive and transmit the signals it sends. Pretty soon, the drug abuser is taking the drug just to bring the dopamine functions back up to normal and to avoid the horrible craving that compels them to seek and use drugs even when their lives and health are falling apart. That is really the essence of addiction.
But the good news is that natural, healthy experiences of euphoria don't wreck the brain's chemistry. So think about what you do in life that makes you feel good. Spending time with friends, playing with your dog, doing sports, seeing a good movie? Any of these activities can create a natural euphoria by triggering the brain's reward system the way it was meant to work.
So don't let drugs fool your brain, and then wreck it.
Why have a government agency to regulate the food we eat (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and an agency to help protect our health (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)? These agencies are important in helping make rules, spread messages, and monitor things that affect Americans to make sure that we all stay healthy. The Government continues to add agencies that help to regulate and monitor health. In 1974, it created the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study, fund research, and spread the word about the science behind drug abuse and addiction.
As SBB has explained in many past posts, addiction is complicated. Like other mental disorders—such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—addiction is a chronic disease that can last a lifetime without proper treatment. And, addiction not only affects the addicted person, but also their family members and friends.
The goal of having a national agency that supports drug abuse research is to help prevent drug abuse and addiction. The more research we have to prove that addiction is a dangerous and lifelong brain disease, the more able we are to reduce the devastating effects that drug abuse has on individuals, their families and communities, and society as a whole.
NIDA's goal is to give people scientific knowledge about the dangers of drug abuse. Therefore, NIDA continues to explore how drugs work in the brain and body, and to develop and test new approaches to treatment and prevention. The first step is taken by researchers; the next step is up to you. How will you use this knowledge?
Over the years, NIDA has made its research available to many different audiences. In 2003, NIDA launched the NIDA for Teens Web site, which now hosts the Sara Bellum Blog (uh-hum), and other great tools, including Choose Your Path, which is an interactive video that asks you to make choices about prescription drug abuse, then see where those choices lead. Check out some other great resources that NIDA provides for students and young adults.
Did you ever wonder how scientists develop medications to help people stop smoking? High School Junior Ameya Deshmukh has been wondering about that since he was 7 years old. Because his parents work in science labs, he began learning about basic science from an early age. Now at age 16, he just won the first place NIDA Addiction Science Award at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
For his project, Ameya decided to search a database of 10,000 molecules to find one that will bind to nicotine receptors in the brain. Those are the cells that nicotine molecules attach to and then cause their addictive effects in the brain. If we can learn how to link up the right molecules with the right receptors—say, by developing a special medication with that would go right to nicotine’s “sweet spot” in the brain—then we could block the pleasure that people get from cigarettes. A lot of lives might be saved, since 440,000 people in this country die every year from tobacco-related diseases. This includes 35,000 who die from exposure to second-hand smoke. UGH!
Because identifying the right molecule can be like finding a needle in a haystack, Ameya used what is known as “rational drug design.” He first selected molecules based on previous research. Then he used computerized models to narrow the list of potential compounds even more. Finally, he tested the short list of molecules on human cells to identify which ones would bind to the receptors. With more research, Ameya’s work could point to new directions in developing medications to help people quit smoking.
When talking to the judges, Ameya stressed how important it was to develop these medications. In 2009, 20.1 percent of 12th-graders, 13.1 percent of 10th-graders, and 6.5 percent of 8th-graders said they smoked in the month before the survey. Unfortunately, many will get addicted. The hard part is quitting, as seen in the nearly 35 million people who make a serious attempt to quit smoking each year, with most starting up again within a week. So promising new medications are sorely needed.
NIDA’s Addiction Science award is given at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was in San Jose this year. For more information on NIDA’s 3 winners, see NIDA’s news release at http://www.nida.nih.gov/newsroom/10/NR5-14.html
Are there serious public health problems that you could address in a science project?
- Most areas of the brain stop producing new neurons (the cells that transmit information from the brain to different parts of the body) after we’re born, but the hippocampus, a structure crucial to learning and memory, continues to form new neurons throughout life.
Recent NIDA-funded research suggests that drugs may reduce production of those hippocampal neurons, which may increase the risk of drug addiction.
- Compared to most people, those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are more likely to go for instant gratification over long-term rewards. People who are dependent on drugs have trouble remembering the positive and negative consequences of their choices.
A NIDA study found that doing exercises to improve memory helped participants wait for a larger sum of money rather than accept a smaller one right away. This means that memory training may have a place in substance abuse treatment as a way to help patients reject quick drug highs in favor of the longer term satisfaction of a drug-free life.While NIDA scientists are focused on reducing drug addiction and its consequences, their work provides knowledge of brain science that can be applied in other areas of health. Interested in learning more about the brain? Visit the Brain Awareness Week Web site or “Like” the campaign on Facebook.
SBB talks a lot about science related to drug abuse and addiction. Judging from the great comments and questions that you guys have posted during the year, we can tell that you have brushed up on your facts. So once again, give us the scoop:
Besides SBB, what other blogs or Web sites do you visit to get the facts on science, health, drugs, and addiction?
To answer the question, either submit a comment by writing your response in the “Leave a Reply” box below, or send us a message. As always, we read all comments and consider all feedback.
Remember, you can respond to previous questions we’ve asked at any time! Whether you respond to an older post or the newest post, we always look forward to hearing from you.
Because addiction is a disease, it can be treated with therapy and, in some cases, medication. People can enter recovery from addiction, just like people can enter recovery from other diseases, like cancer.
Maybe when you think of someone who gets treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, you picture a middle-aged person who has struggled for half his life with the disease of addiction. That’s not always the case. Many teens and young adults enter treatment and recovery at a young age.
Take it from Ben Chin, who submitted his story to the “Youth and Young Adults” section of the website for September’s National Recovery Month health observance. Ben was addicted to alcohol by age 14—but he hasn’t had a drink since he was 19 (he’s 24 now).
In a video, Ben talks about how alcohol affected his life. “I missed a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I got arrested a lot. I missed a lot of school.” He also threw away a promising athletic future. “I lost the things that I cared about—my friends, and eventually, my family.”
Entering treatment and recovery, though, changed all that. Ben says, “Recovery has given me a new life and much hope for the future.”
In honor of National Recovery Month, take a moment to read and watch these personal stories from young people and adults in recovery.
Do you have a story about drug abuse or addiction? Consider submitting it here, which you can do anonymously. You never know who you might help by speaking out. Kristina Fenn says in her video, “My greatest fear before finding recovery was that I was the only person who had ever struggled with this disease. It’s never too early to get into recovery.”
As always, feel free to share your story in comments. We may offer you the opportunity to write a guest SBB post.
That was my question. Why do people do the things they do. I used to just love to sit and watch people. I could sit at the park or in the mall for hours and just “people watch.” I think that's why when I got to college I eventually became a psychology major. I wanted to understand more about why people behave in certain ways and what makes people choose to do different things.
One thing fascinated me in particular was why do some people smoke? My parents smoked when I was growing up. I remember my dad decided to quit and he seemed to do it so easily but when my mom tried, it was so hard for her. She seemed to try everything to quit, and then her mood would get so bad that soon she was buying another pack. Eventually though she did quit...I don't know what finally did it—back then we didn't have the patch or gum and there were no medications. No one talked about smoking being an addiction, it was just a habit, and people thought you only needed willpower to be able to quit. Imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to see my dad being able to quit so easily and her having to struggle so hard.
Smoking affects people very differently. When I was about 18, I had some very cool friends who smoked and so I wanted to smoke too. So I tried it but, lucky for me, I hated it. That was my first lesson in genetics. My second was when I took a class in behavioral genetics, and suddenly all my life experiences started to click, to make sense. My mother struggled to quit because she had a genetic tendency for addiction, not just smoking but also for alcohol, which eventually took her life. I was lucky I had many of my dad’s protective genes so substances of abuse were never tempting to me.
It was these life experiences that drew me to the field of genetics, to better understand why some people struggle so mightily with addiction like my mother. We don't have all the answers even today, but many scientists are working on this puzzle to help find better treatments so people can overcome their addictions and reclaim their lives. Think about becoming a scientist to help solve this puzzle and make life better for so many! It’s a great field and very rewarding, too.
Dr. Miner is the Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications (OSPC) at NIDA. She helps coordinate all of NIDA’s communications to Congress, constituent groups, and the media. She also oversees NIDA’s plans for the research it will support. Cindy earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Colorado in 1986. She’s published numerous papers and book chapters on the genetic and biochemical bases of addiction. Oh—she’s also a wonderful person, an Emmy award winner (as part of NIDA’s work on the HBO special, “Addiction”), and a super athlete! So being a successful “science nerd” is just one of her many talents
* Dr. Miner will soon leave her position at NIDA to start an exciting new job with the Food and Drug Administration’s new Center for Tobacco Products, helping to start up their Communications and Policy offices. SBB wishes her the best!
My name is Michael and I was an intern at NIDA during the summer of 2012. Normally, people picture scientists in laboratories when they think about the National Institutes of Health, but my time with NIDA has shown me that a lot of important scientific work is done in the office setting. Interning with NIDA, I was able to learn about scientific investigating, while also learning important aspects of working in a Government office, like public speaking and professionalism.
I worked on behalf of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Workgroup at NIDA. Being an Asian American myself, I felt it appropriate that while learning the ropes of a scientific career, I could also participate in a program that would help prevent problems affecting minorities. The goal of my internship was to work with other AAPI Workgroup interns to design a Web site that would function as a survey to assess the rate of substance use among Asians as well as act as a research portal for anyone interested in learning about the dangers of drug abuse.
Since the interns had different skill sets, we all made the most out of our time because tasks were assigned according to our individual capabilities. On an average day, I would commute to NIDA and begin working on tasks, which usually involved research on a particular drug topic. Twice a week, the AAPI team would meet for a teleconference, where we heard drug-related lectures and received work instructions.
Some interesting things I learned during my NIDA internship include:
- The scope of addictive behaviors is increasing, with new problems that didn't exist before. For example, Internet addiction disorder is an emerging problem that may become a legitimate addiction in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—used to diagnose mental health conditions.
- Cultural pressures play a huge role in substance use, and different racial subgroups vary in their drug usage rates. For instance, Asian subgroups—such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese—have different rates of drug abuse and dependence.
- People who try drugs in adolescence can triple their chances of abusing drugs when they’re adults.
Aside from the abundance of new information I learned about the risks and prevalence of drug use, the daily practice of professionalism in the workplace is probably the greatest thing that I got out of this program. Whether it was simply dressing up every day or learning to work with peers and elders, interning at NIDA helped me grow into a more open-minded and mature individual. My experience with NIDA has given me insight into what it is really like to have a career in science, and it has definitely influenced my idea of a desirable path for the future.
This internship is very new because the summer of 2012 was its first year. Whatever direction this program goes, it offers valuable, real-world experiences, and so I encourage everyone to apply or simply stay tuned to NIDA to experience the intellectual growth that I have.
Michael Guo is a senior in high school in Vienna, Virginia. He interned with NIDA’s Clinical Trials Network, which develops, validates, and delivers new treatment options to patients in Community Treatment Programs.
Hello, you last heard from me when I won one of NIDA’s Science of Addiction Awards at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Since then, NIDA invited me to become an intern at its Intramural Research Program (IRP) lab in Baltimore, Maryland, and it was a memorable experience. I worked in the Molecular Targets and Medications Discovery Branch. The research I conducted at NIDA focused on cocaine addiction but also has applications for Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
My project looked at how dopamine receptors in the brain might structurally combine to affect cocaine addiction and other neurological disorders. After taking two buses to come to the IRP campus every morning, I strapped on my gloves and started preparing the substance to give to the dopamine cells. My experiments usually lasted the whole day. I always waited with excitement at the end of the day to see the results. Through the experimentation, we developed a better understanding of the intracellular signaling of dopamine receptors (how they “talk” to each other), which could eventually help in developing new drugs to treat ailments associated with the dopamine receptors, including addiction.
I enjoyed the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I was able to contribute to the research in Dr. Sergi Ferre's lab, called the Central Nervous System Receptor-Receptor Interactions Unit. Every Thursday, our lab met to discuss our results. There, I had the amazing opportunity to work with my mentor, Dr. Xavier Guitart—something I will never forget. I was new to this specific field of neurology, so Dr. Guitart guided me through the whole process. He was always there when I needed guidance. It was so great to work in such a supportive environment.
Loss Led to Interest in Brain Science
I became interested in drug addiction because of my strong desire to contribute to research in the neurology field, after my uncle passed away from stroke in 2008. Stroke constricts blood flow to the brain, which is why it is a neurological disorder. Addiction is another disorder that affects the brain, which is what initially made me interested in drug addiction. My hope is that developing a treatment for addiction will also shed light on neurological disorders like stroke.
I've always wanted to be a medical doctor, possibly a surgeon. But now that I've had a glimpse of working in a research lab, it is something that I want to pursue later in life. Through this opportunity, I’ve learned that drug addiction is an important issue that affects many people, and that my efforts, along with many others’ efforts, will contribute to finding effective treatments. Working at the NIDA lab gave me a lot to think about as I enter my final year of high school.
Yamini Naidu is a senior at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon. Her lab work in NIDA's Intramural Research Program has inspired her to pursue a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program in neurology.
“We always start with a question…”
We love getting the comments you send us in response to important or controversial posts. As you know, Sara Bellum has the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s most renowned researchers to understand more about drug abuse and addiction. Since many of you have commented on blog posts questioning the science or wondering how NIDA scientists reach their conclusions, we invited NIDA’s Director, Dr. Nora Volkow, to talk about how scientists go about the process of discovery. Dr. Volkow explains:
In scientific research, we always start with a question. It could be something monumental—like setting out to map every neuron in the human brain to help determine its precise structure—or something that applies in only certain cases—like why do some people get addicted to drugs more easily than others?
Once we have a question in mind, we investigate existing research to see how others have looked at the question, or maybe even answered it. Sometimes, this helps a researcher refine the question or discover whether other conclusions could have been drawn from existing data.
Science is about testing and retesting our assumptions
Based on current research on differences in addiction between individuals, we might look through data to identify common features for drug-addicted persons: are they based on a family history of addiction? Are there environmental factors like the availability of certain drugs? What about mental health considerations?
From there, we would form a hypothesis. For example: “In certain individuals, heredity is a factor in drug addiction.”
Then we would devise a way to test that hypothesis in an experimental group vs. a control group. The only way we can verify results is to have someone else conduct the experiment independently and replicate the findings. Science is about testing and retesting our assumptions. Only then can we call it a science-based fact.
So, you can see that scientists are, by nature, curious about why and how things work. Maybe you’ve been curious enough to do a science experiment yourself?
Maybe you’re like teens Daniel Martin, Jada Dalley, and Sehar Salman, who all found themselves pursuing scientific mysteries: Daniel wondered if he could prove the urban myth that scavengers in the deserts of the Southwest will not touch human remains with even a trace of methamphetamines in their bodies. Jada and Sehar examined tsetse flies (a common experimental source for scientists) to discover something completely new: effects of third-hand smoke. They searched for answers using the scientific method Dr. Volkow describes above, and designed research projects that earned them a 2009 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Addiction Science Award.
Check out ( PDF [586 KB] ) what Daniel, Jada and Sehar found, and how they reached their conclusions.
Keep asking questions.
SBB recently caught up with a few past winners of the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award to find out what the teens are doing now. Not everyone has followed a science path, but they are all in college pursuing their interests. In this series, the winners offer advice for today’s high school students trying to figure out what to do after graduation.
Kapil Ramachandran, a native of Austin, Texas, won first-place recognition in 2008 as NIDA’s first Addiction Science Fair Award winner for his work investigating the biological basis of alcohol addiction. His research on “drunk” fruit flies allowed him to conduct tests to study how manipulating a specific protein in fruit flies affects tolerance for alcohol. This research can apply to understanding similar reactions in humans.
Kapil’s interest in addiction science started when he worked in a hospital emergency room. “I was in the ER and saw a kid die from narcotics overdose. That hit me like a wall of bricks. It’s a mental image that doesn’t go away. Now I have an insane kind of curiosity.”
He notes that in high school, he was incredibly lucky to study epigenetics, the interplay between genes and the environment. He worked in a lab at the University of Texas at Austin, then continued his lab research while studying biology and physiology at Duke University, where he submitted a research paper that is currently being reviewed for publication.
Kapil’s interest in addiction research continues. This year, he enrolled in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University where he hopes to earn a doctorate in neuroscience. At the Hopkins lab, he works with a faculty advisor studying how THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, affects fruit flies. He is trying to discover how THC influences processes other than by acting on cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body.
The Importance of Mentors
Because generous mentors helped Kapil at every step, he encourages high school students interested in science to allow themselves to be curious about a problem and go after it. Kapil found that other scientists will respond when they see your interest is genuine, even if it’s just working on small problems in biology class.
Kapil is committed to sharing his passion for science, and volunteers at an inner city high school in Baltimore through the Incentive Mentoring Program. While he tutors teens in math, science, and English, Kapil feels he is giving them more than just help with schoolwork. “It’s important for kids who are struggling to be surrounded by people who have the drive to learn, because it’s contagious. Science is not something that’s easy to do. But it’s gratifying like nothing else—it gives you an experience that helps you think in a different way.”
Dr. Frascella: At NIDA, we’re interested in how drug abuse affects brain and behavior, so we can learn how to better prevent and treat it.
We’re finding out that all drugs of abuse change the brain. Our task as scientists and researchers is to try to figure out 1) How to prevent the use of drugs that change the brain, and 2) Once the brain has been changed, can we change it back to normal?
We know generally that drugs change the brain in ways that result in some dysfunctional behaviors.
SBB: What does that mean?
Dr. Frascella: Well, for instance, addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug taking. That means once you start [abusing drugs], you often can’t stop, even if you want to. That is because your brain has been changed in ways that “hijack” your self-control. So although your initial decision to take drugs was a voluntary behavior (maybe you thought you’d try them out once or twice), it ends up being compulsive behavior, where you are driven to repeat drug use again and again.
Over time, if you keep taking drugs, you’re no longer in control. The drug-seeking urges or drug cravings become so strong that you can’t stop.
SBB: Is marijuana one of those drugs that can hijack the brain?
Dr. Frascella: It certainly could. There are plenty of people who start out smoking pot recreationally. Some people may try it to be “cool” and have fun with their friends. They like it so much, they keep doing it. But 15 to 20 years later, they’re still smoking marijuana every day, once, twice, or three or more times a day. They can’t go to sleep without it; and they have trouble with thinking and remembering things. It becomes a big problem in their lives.
SBB: Does smoking pot have any unique effects when you’re a teen?
Dr. Frascella: We know that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed in areas where making decisions and exercising good judgment (the frontal areas of the brain) are involved. Adding drugs of abuse further compromises those same brain areas, so it’s like a “double whammy.” Because the brain isn’t fully developed, drugs can have a greater effect on it and cause the brain not to function properly.
If you think about a car, drugs push the “go” system, the gas pedal. The frontal areas of the brain are like the braking system. Those brakes are not fully developed, and the drugs are pushing on that accelerator without having brakes. We really need those frontal brain areas to help us weigh two sides of a decision properly and consider the consequences, which we don’t tend to do when we’re young and feeling like nothing can hurt us.
SBB: So we’re speeding through life with no brakes, and whatever is in front of us gets mowed down?
Dr. Frascella: Well, hopefully not. Hopefully we aren’t without any brakes. Our research at NIDA is to figure out ways to enhance those braking systems and come up with therapies that can help teenagers and adults who want to take back their lives from the grip of drugs.
*Note: In order to listen to the podcast, you will need to have a media player on your computer.
A phobia is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Phobias can cause a lot of anxiety, panic, and even fainting. You may have heard of some phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophia (fear of confined spaces).
But have you ever heard of nomophobia—the fear of being without your cell phone? We’ve all had that anxious feeling when you’ve lost your phone or accidentally left it at home. But does your anxiety increase to the point of being a phobia?
Nomophobia—an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phone-phobia”—is also called “cell phone addiction.” Symptoms include:
- Experiencing anxiety or panic over losing your phone
- Obsessively checking for missed calls, emails, and texts
- Using your phone in inappropriate places like the bathroom or church
- Missing out on opportunities for face-to-face interactions
A recent survey found that two-thirds of people in the United Kingdom experience nomophobia. That number increases to 77% for young people age 18‒24. Cell phone use is definitely increasing everywhere, especially among teens…overall in the U.S., 75% of all teens text, sending an average of 60‒100 texts per day.
Is Nomophobia Real?
Researchers debate whether nomophobia is a real addiction. Addiction to drugs stems from their causing dopamine to flood the brain—which can trigger euphoria and a strong desire to repeat the experience. Researchers question whether the anticipation or rush of receiving an email, text, or Facebook status update may also trigger release of dopamine. But no studies have examined the issue.
So, what do you think? Do you believe nomophobia is real? Do you know people who are addicted to their cell phones? Are you?
My name is Sarah and before my high school senior year, I spent a summer at NIDA as an intern with the Center for Clinical Trials Network (CCTN). Never heard of it? Neither had I. I discovered that the goal of the CCTN is to improve the quality of drug abuse treatment throughout the whole country by doing safe and interesting scientific studies with humans. By the way, human studies are called “Clinical Trials.” These are trials or tests done to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of different medications or approaches by monitoring their effects on large groups of people, like a big “clinic” full of patients, but in a research setting.
As the name implies, the CCTN works as a network that includes scientific investigators all over the country. These investigators work together to develop and carry out clinical trials to evaluate behavioral and medical treatments for drug addiction, and to discover new ways to make existing treatments more effective.
So what did I learn about clinical trials? Clinical trials provide the best standard for demonstrating that a certain behavioral treatment or medicine really works and is also safe for humans. In the area of drug addiction, there is a great need for safe and effective treatments that are tailored to the specific addiction, such as heroin, cocaine, or marijuana.
I also learned that drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition. It may be easy to break one cycle of addiction, but it is very difficult to keep the patient from falling into another. One analogy is to think about the obese patient who can lose weight in the short run, but over time experiences many cycles of weight loss and gain, without really achieving an ideal body weight.
In a similar way, the addicted patient will receive successful treatment to break the addiction, but will continue to have cycles of relapse, requiring further treatments. The addicted patient might have a relapse towards the initial drug, but it can also be for a new substance or a combination of substances (e.g. initial addiction to marijuana, then addiction to opiates, then addiction to opiates and prescription drugs). Thus I discovered the true goal of the CCTN is to promote the development of treatments, or a combination of treatments, that will not only treat the addiction, but will also prevent future relapses.
More on clinical trials
While clinical trials are a way to develop new treatments and advance the scientific and clinical knowledge base from humans who volunteer to participate, I also learned that the volunteers themselves can benefit from their participation in clinical trials. For example, patients with difficult diseases like cancer can participate in a clinical trial in hopes of finding a cure, or at least a more effective treatment.
For more information on clinical trials, NIH maintains a clinical trials registry known as ClinicalTrials.gov, which contains information on trials supported by federal funds. There you can find information about a trial's purpose, who may participate, locations, and more.
The relationship between genes and addiction is complex. Researchers estimate that someone’s risk for becoming addicted to drugs depends both on their genetic makeup and on environmental factors, such as whether their friends abuse drugs.
NIDA researchers are busy studying which genes are linked to increased risk for drug addiction. For example, in 2012, a study looked at a gene that is tied to nicotine addiction and found that people with a “high-risk” variation of this gene had a harder time quitting smoking than people with a “low-risk” variation of the same gene. Generally, people with the high-risk gene took longer to quit smoking and were more likely to be heavy smokers than those with the low-risk version.
If researchers can zero in on the genes that may lead to increased risk of addiction, it might help doctors and other clinicians identify patients who would respond best to particular treatments designed to help them quit. For example, in the same study, people with the high-risk variation of the gene were three times more likely to be able to quit smoking if they used a medication than if they didn’t use one.
NIDA is also working to develop vaccines that would help protect people from addiction and drugs’ other harmful effects.
A lot of celebrities are making headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. First we hear about tennis star Andre Agassi admitting to meth (a toxic stimulant drug) use when he was on the tennis circuit (what was he thinking?) and now Tiger Woods, with everyone speculating about his personal problems. All of this news has made SBB think a lot about how we make choices in our lives. Why do intelligent, successful people make bad choices when they have so much to lose—even (and maybe especially) superstars?
We look at this question of personal choices and self control a lot at NIDA while we study drug abuse. Initially, taking drugs is a choice. Over time, drug abuse can become a disease we call addiction. But what makes us risk the consequences of making the choice to try drugs? Not everyone becomes addicted to them, but many do, so why do people risk it?
To find answers, scientists are studying the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine gives us a feeling of euphoria, a physical surge of pleasure in response to things we enjoy, which are different for different people. From healthy pleasures, like eating a good meal or scoring a goal, to unhealthy ones, like doing drugs or stealing from stores. Once you become addicted to that rush of dopamine it is hard to stop the behavior. And, once you become addicted it is hard to feel pleasure from the simple things in life—like a great piece of music, holding hands with someone you really like, spending a fun day with the family, or having a laugh with friends.
So how do we avoid making bad choices in the first place? SBB suggests focusing on the genuine pleasures in your life. Fill your day with them. Go shopping with your sister, watch a game with friends, join a club at school, see a movie, read a great book…Protect the simple pleasures in your life—and when it comes to drugs, maybe think about what you might lose.
When our brains are healthy, we barely notice this marvel of engineering that controls our every thought, feeling, and move. But the many people suffering from brain disorders, including addiction, know that malfunctions in the brain can change who we are and how we manage our lives.
For a closer look into how our brains function—or malfunction—scientists have discovered a new way to turn individual neurons and cell circuits on and off using light.
Neurons in the brain pass electrical impulses back and forth thousands of times a minute, but turning them on and off isn’t quite as simple as flipping a light switch. First, researchers have to insert light-sensitive genes, taken from algae, into specific neurons. Then, using lasers connected to thin fiber optic threads, they can activate or deactivate the modified cells to see how neurons or groups of neurons work together. So far, this new field of optogenetics research is limited to animal studies.
Working To Understand Brain Disorders
Scientists have successfully switched mouse neurons on and off to see how different brain circuits control habits, emotions, and behaviors. The technique may also help scientists understand the causes and potential treatment of specific brain disorders such as schizophrenia.
Optogenetics is also helping scientists understand how addiction affects the brain.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained mice to run through a maze for a chocolate reward. Out of habit, the mice continued to run through the maze even after the reward was no longer present. But by using optogenetics to activate cells of a brain area called the basal ganglia, the researchers turned off the chocolate-chasing habit. (The basal ganglia contain the brain’s reward circuits, which are involved in addictions.)
Scientists are hopeful that optogenetics could eventually help treat addiction and other neurological conditions in people.
Watch this video to learn more about optogenetics:
Since we’re at the end of December, it’s almost time for New Year’s Resolutions. Most of those are really hard to keep, right? (like commitments to exercise more or get straight A’s). Well, SBB is prepared to make a New Year’s resolution of another kind: to stay on top of the latest news and information about drug abuse and addiction and share it with all of you. After a great start in 2009, with more than 59 blog posts and nearly 40,000 unique visitors to the site, you probably know by now that you can trust this blog for scientific and accurate information about drugs and related topics.
What can we expect from NIDA scientists in the year 2010? Here are just a few of the questions researchers will be working on in the coming year:
- How can we best use the Internet to help people with drug problems?
- Can we really get a vaccine for people addicted to cigarettes, or to illegal drugs like cocaine, to help them quit and prevent them from starting up again?
- How does smoking affect bone health in teen girls?
- What is the best way to help people addicted to prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin?
- How can we develop pain medications that are as strong as Vicodin but will not get you addicted?
- How can we use the part of marijuana that might work as a medicine and give it to people in a safe way?
So 2010 should be an exciting year! And SBB “resolves” to be right here to tell you about it. Happy New Year everyone—What’s 2010 look like for all of you?
My name is Yamini Naidu and I am a sophomore at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon. I have been working on a science project about Methamphetamine (METH) addiction for the past two years, beginning in the summer of 2009. To those who read this blog, I wanted to share my research experience on METH so you could learn about the great potential for biochemistry that exists in the world of drugs and addiction. I received guidance for this project from the Oregon Health and Science University, the Portland American Chemical Society, and my high school chemistry and biology teachers. My research focuses on developing a treatment for METH addiction through computer modeling.
I was inspired to do this science project because I have had an interest in the brain and in neurology ever since my uncle passed away from stroke as a complication of heart disease. I was intrigued by the fact that METH can cause strokes in young abusers by a process still unknown to science. I hope that my research will not only help in the treatment of METH addiction but also in the treatment of stroke. At present, there is no effective treatment for controlling METH craving during withdrawal and abstinence. The goal of my research is to find or create a small molecule that can potentially block METH from binding to a special activation site (called Site I). Site I is located on a receptor protein in the brain called hTAAR1 (human Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1). METH normally binds to this receptor like a key fits a lock – only a key with that shape can fit in the TAAR1 lock.
While experimenting with computer models, I discovered two new activation sites (which I call Sites II and III) on the receptor protein. I predicted that certain chemicals that prefer to bind to these new sites can change the shape of the receptor, making it impossible for METH to stick. If the lock changes, the old key can’t fit! So, guided by the computer-generated 3D structures of the two new TAAR1 binding sites, I designed new compounds and verified by computer that they would match the shape of the new activation sites. These new compounds may be preferred over others because their chemical structures and shape give them a stronger potential to bind to the receptor. The Oregon Health and Science University has filed a patent application on my discovery of the two binding sites and my invention of the novel compounds. My future goals are to synthesize and evaluate the compounds that I designed as potential new medication leads in laboratory trials and eventually in human trials.
I first presented my project at the regional Central Western Oregon Science Expo. Several expos and science fairs later, I was selected by Intel NWSE to represent the state of Oregon at ISEF as a finalist, where I competed with 1,500 high school student finalists from around the country and world. At ISEF, I was awarded the First Place Award of $3,000 in the biochemistry category. In addition, I was invited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to give a talk on my research project in Washington, DC, this August. I have received recognition and rewards from many different organizations for my research, and I am happy now to share my great experience with more people.
Gili Rusak is a junior in high school. She won an Honorable Mention 2013 Addiction Science Award. Her project explored the characteristics of teens who use Twitter and how Twitter can be used to spread prevention messages among teens. After receiving her award, she told the writers of the Sara Bellum Blog about herself and her winning project.
How did you start doing addiction science research?
I began this research with a mentor who pointed me in the general direction of doing research on social networks, especially Twitter. My brother also encouraged me to begin research in the computer science and data mining field.
What inspired you to start addiction science research?
The thing that inspired me to start this research was that I personally use Twitter and Facebook. I saw these online social networks as a great part of my own life and the lives of students around me. Since social media is such a vital part of teenagers’ lives today, I believed that there could be many positive applications that could come out of studying this age group. Additionally, after conducting a review of the literature, I found that there were no papers that provided statistics about teenagers on Twitter.
What was the most challenging part of doing the research you submitted to the Addiction Science Awards?
For me, the most challenging part of this project was coming up with ideas of what to study and analyze, since my mentor let me make those decisions by myself. To help me, I read a lot of literature on my subject and used similar techniques to those others have used for data analysis on Twitter. I conducted most of my research, wrote all the data collection codes, and created all the analyses by myself.
Do you plan on studying science and continuing research in the future?
I plan on continuing this research, especially looking further into Twitter as a platform to prevent drug use.
In college, I plan on studying science and continuing research because it really intrigues me to study something that has never been studied before. I will probably study computer science, some of which I used for this project.
Do you have any recommendations for high school students interested in doing their own research?
I would recommend that high school students who are interested in research go after something they are passionate about, because when you do research, you have to be willing to commit time and thought to it.
Here at NIDA, we can't learn enough about the brain. Other scientists are brain-obsessed too-there's even a Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to spread the word about the progress and benefits of brain research. This week, people all over the world will take some time to learn about the complex and beautiful brain. So, in the spirit of the week, here's some "brain bits."
Everyone knows that your brain helps you learn-it stores information and helps you put different pieces together to draw conclusions about all sorts of things: from math problems to history essay questions to whether you like the taste of tomatoes.
The brain relies on a bunch of chemicals called neurotransmitters to get messages from one part of the brain to the other. It's pretty amazing how each neurotransmitter attaches to its own kind of receptor-like how a key fits into a lock. Messages zip through the brain on the right routes thanks to this intricate process.
But drugs can really mess up the brain's traffic patterns. The chemical structure of some drugs, like marijuana, imitates the structure of a natural neurotransmitter. In this way, drugs can "fool" receptors, lock onto them, and alter the activity of nerve cells.
The problem is, drugs don't work exactly the same way as the natural neurotransmitters they resemble. So a brain on drugs sends messages down wrong pathways throughout the brain. Marijuana, for example, can alter concentration and memory. Other drugs can literally reset what the brain needs to feel pleasure so that, without the drug, a person dependent on it feels hopeless and sad.
As you can see, the brain is a complex organ, worthy of its own week of honor. Learn more about your brain and the harmful effects of drugs from these resources:
You may think you know what addiction is—lots of people have many different opinions about addiction and different ways of defining it. Here are some myths you may have heard:
- Getting over addiction to drugs is a choice.
- In order for treatment to work, the person has to hit “rock bottom.”
- People have to choose to get treatment or it won’t be effective, such as when a judge sends a person to treatment facility instead of jail.
The truth is that addiction is a complex brain disease that scientists are still figuring out. For instance, one person may use a drug once or many times and nothing bad happens, while others may overdose with the first use. Some people use drugs regularly and never become addicted, while others try drugs once or twice and do become addicted. There is no way of knowing in advance how a person may react to these dangerous substances. Whether or how quickly addiction takes hold in individuals depends on many factors, including:
- Genes: Research shows that some people’s genes may leave them more susceptible to addiction than other people’s.
- Environment: Kids who are exposed to drug use in their families or neighborhoods are at greater risk of engaging in drug abuse themselves.
- Age at first use: The younger a person uses drugs, the more vulnerable he or she is to addiction in adulthood. Since the brain continues to develop well into a person’s twenties, using drugs in the teen years can set a person up for later drug problems.
What scientists know for sure is that many drugs “turn on” the brain’s reward circuit, which is part of the limbic system. The person then learns to associate the drug with pleasure and starts to crave it more and more, leading to compulsive drug use and often to addiction. In an addicted person, the brain changes in ways that cause compulsive drug seeking and use, despite negative consequences, so even if they want to quit, they can’t without treatment and support. That’s why addiction is considered a brain disease. Other activities in life also activate the brain’s reward circuit and can cause “driven” behaviors, such as compulsive overeating or video game playing. However, scientists are still trying to figure out why this happens in non-drug contexts—it may be connected to dopamine levels in the brain. Learn more about the science behind drug addiction by visiting http://nida.nih.gov/scienceofaddiction/.