Learning about addiction to prevent and treat it

Before a big game, you can find most coaches holed up in their offices poring over video footage of the upcoming opponent. They know that, in order to design an effective counter-strategy, it helps to know first exactly how the opponent operates, down to the details of each and every play.

The same general principle applies to fighting drug abuse. We have a much better chance of successfully preventing and treating addiction if we understand at deeper levels why and how addiction develops, both at the social level and at the more subtle levels you'd need a microscope to see. It can be challenging to relate the work of a scientist at a lab bench to what occurs on the front lines of abuse or treatment, but this is exactly what we aspire to do at the MARC.

About the MARC

Our mission at the MARC is to understand methamphetamine abuse at many levels: "To characterize the effects of methamphetamine use and withdrawal at the molecular, neurochemical, anatomical, behavioral, and clinical levels, and to identify obstacles to recovery in methamphetamine abusers."

Technically, the MARC is a P-50 research center funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an agency of the federal government that sponsors much of the addictions research that happens in the United States. The MARC was founded in 2006 when a group of neuroscience researchers and doctors at OHSU and the Portland VA Medical Center decided they wanted to work together to study the many interacting facets of the disease. At OHSU, the center is jointly housed with the departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience.

Translational research

"Translational research" involves looking at a single problem from many different directions and at many different levels. For example, we might look at the issue of drug craving by talking with addicts about their experiences, viewing their brains through an MRI scanner, observing mice who have become addicted to drugs, or using cultured cells to look at neurotransmitter receptors affected by drug molecules. Investigating neurobiological questions at these multiple levels makes research more powerful, since each level or technique has different insights to offer.

MARC research themes

Tying our work together, the MARC has several research themes related to methamphetamine addiction.


Impulsivity can be loosely defined as the tendency to act or speak quickly without first thinking of consequences. Researchers have long known that drug users tend to me more impulsive, on average, than non-users. However, it's been hard to tell which trait is the cause of the other: Are impulsive people more likely to become addicted, or does drug addiction make people more impulsive? Or both?

Because the trait of impulsivity is related closely to substance-use decisions -- both decisions to try drugs for the first time, and decisions related to continued use and relapse -- impulsivity is an important area to study in understanding addiction.

Stressor responsivity

Stress is not just a feeling, but a series of physiological and neurological events in the body. Drug addiction can cause stress, as when the user worries about finding the next dose of drug or confronts life problems caused by the addiction. Research suggests that stress is also an important factor in continued abuse and that it may play a role in relapse by affecting chemical signals in the brain. Understanding the how stress interacts in the brain with the chemical changes wrought by addiction can help us target ways to interrupt this destructive cycle.

Neuroanatomy of methamphetamine's effects

Researchers understand some ways that methamphetamine works in the brain, but many puzzles remain as to where exactly the drug has its effects and how these initial effects cascade forward to other parts of the brain and nervous anatomy. Before we can effectively address these effects, it helps to understand where they are happening.

Neuroadaptation to methamphetamine

The brain that someone has after using methamphetamine -- even once -- is not the same brain she or he had before encountering the drug. Methamphetamine powerfully hijacks parts of the brain's chemical pathways in ways that result in changes that persist even when someone is no longer using the drug. If a person continues to use, the brain adapts in response, leading to the phenomenon we know as addiction. The MARC aims to understand more about when and how these alterations in chemistry take place, and what can be done to reverse them.