Substance Use and Abuse
Assessing the risk and consequences of addiction:
Our research program addresses alcohol and nicotine addiction, two of the three leading causes of preventable death in the USA, with the possibility of expanding to cannabinoids in the near future. The program utilizes the propensity of NHPs to self-administer psychoactive substances in a repeated manner that recapitulates addictive disorders in humans. Our program is organized to identify key endocrine aspects of the risk for heavy alcohol drinking, particularly as related to the stress-axis response, menstrual cycle quality and immune system regulation. We can identify the specific brain changes associated with the transition from low and moderate use of a psychoactive substance (alcohol, nicotine, cannabinoids) to the development of dependence. We also explore a genetic basis of nicotine and alcohol comorbidity by focusing on genes specific to risk for smoking in humans that also occur in monkeys. Our program is able to assess the effects of in utero exposure to alcohol, and nicotine on fetal brain growth using in vivo MRI imaging. Finally, we are able to test interventions that may decrease addictive alcohol drinking and alcohol/nicotine co-morbidity in partnership with pharmaceutical companies.
Maternal substance abuse: helping babies thrive.
This year, an estimated one million infants will be exposed to addictive drugs. This figure continues to rise, and with it, the tragic effects. Children born to substance-abusing mothers are often addicts at birth, suffering withdrawal symptoms like seizures, vomiting and breathing problems. Cocaine can cause infant strokes—or even death—while in the womb; alcohol leads to deformation and irreversible brain damage; nicotine use can rob a child of healthy lungs for life and increased risk of ADD and obesity. And none of them made this choice.
Perhaps we can’t prevent maternal substance abuse. But we can help protect the children who suffer the consequences.
Scientists at ONPRC are leading the way in developing technologies that combat these negative effects. We have created models that reproduce the changes in fetal brain and lung development seen in affected human infants. Our discoveries have led to new therapeutic approaches that prevent maternal drug use from affecting the unborn. With these innovative breakthroughs, we can give the desperately needed help to those most at risk—and least capable of caring for themselves.