Research studies are underway in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' (UAMS) new Center for Addiction Research, a collaborative effort between the Colleges of Medicine and Public Health to further the understanding of the addiction process and find ways to break the cycle.
"Our goal is to become one of the nation's premier centers on addiction," said Warren K. Bickel, Ph.D., the center's director and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the UAMS College of Medicine. Bickel said he sees the new center incorporating almost every field of study on the UAMS campus, and influencing how treatment for addiction is handled worldwide.
Bickel is a national authority on examining the underlying behavioral processes of drug dependence in humans and has conducted research that examines novel, cost-effective ways to deliver treatment. He holds the Wilbur D. Mills Chair in Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Prevention at UAMS.
"The Center for Addiction Research will allow the UAMS Department of Psychiatry to increase its cutting-edge research that will provide the basis for future treatments for addiction and mental illness," said G. Richard Smith, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the UAMS College of Medicine.
Joining Bickel is Alison Oliveto, Ph.D., professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the UAMS College of Medicine and a senior scientist in the new center. Previously, she was the scientific director of the Medications Development Research Center at Yale. Oliveto helped test new medications for the treatment of substance abuse and has brought some of that work to UAMS. She also has an active research program that examines the behavioral and cognitive effects of a designer, or club, drug.
One of Bickel's projects, a continuation of studies he started at the University of Vermont in Burlington, involves computerized therapy for drug addicts. Bickel said that in today's information age, people are more comfortable with computers, and he has found in previous studies that it works at least as well as regular meetings with a substance abuse counselor, and is more cost effective.
"Most communities don't have a lot of resources available for substance abuse. We are looking at ways to increase treatment, especially in rural states. By using information technology, we are able to extend the reach of programs and provide better access," he said.
In the computer therapy study, participants will go to a clinic and be asked to provide a urine sample. If they have used drugs recently, as indicated by the urine sample, the computer program will coach the participant on ways to avoid drugs. If they are negative for drug use, the program takes them through 49 modules, which improve skill development and problem solving techniques. The modules help the participant interact with others and modify their behavior. Each module takes 20 to 40 minutes to complete.
To study the actual areas of the brain that correlate with a behavioral process, discounting the future, that may underlie addiction, Bickel has teamed with Diana Lindquist, assistant professor of radiology and psychiatry in the UAMS College of Medicine, to use brain imaging to show which part of the brain is engaged when people with addictions make decisions.
In a previous study, it was determined that when people without addictions make choices for immediate commodities, a more primitive part of the brain becomes engaged, but when they make decisions about the future, a more modern part of the brain is engaged. It is possible, Bickel said, that addicts are making choices about the future in the more primitive part of the brain, which may not be able to rationalize beyond basic survival instinct.
"This is a great opportunity to collaborate and determine how addiction changes brain function as it invokes short term vs. long term gain," he said.
UAMS is the state's only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, five centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has more than 2,200 students and 660 residents and is the state's largest public employer with almost 9,000 employees. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $4.1 billion a year.
UAMS centers of excellence are the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy and Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute.