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It’s a no-brainer: Neuroscience should influence policy on psychoactive substances

Non-smoking campaigns that tell teenage boys that they'll get lung cancer in 30 years if they don’t stop smoking just don’t work.

“But prevention programs that tell them that girls don’t like smokers make them go pale with fear,” says Keith Humphreys, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Humphreys, an affiliated faculty member of Stanford Health Policy, told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recently that the better approach to public-health campaigns are those tailored to the realities of the human brain.

One of those realities is that our brains have evolved to be vulnerable to addiction, especially if we live in the lower-income tiers of society. An understanding of our evolutionary vulnerability to drugs and alcohol can help us to design effective public policies, Humphreys said.

“Primate research indicates that there may be a political and economic dimension to this,” he said. “When lower primates form a hierarchy, those at the bottom undergo a change in their dopamine system. This makes them more likely to consume drugs in an addictive fashion.”

If we don’t use neuroscience to make better treatments and better policies regarding addiction, the opiate of the masses will be opiates.

Addiction can happen to anyone at any level of society — the current opiate epidemic is a case in point — but if you look at wealthy societies, those who have less economic and educational resources are more prone to addiction, he said. “So as inequality worsens, we really have a risk of creating a disempowered underclass of people who are literally sedated by ever more available psychoactive substances.

Humphreys points out that neuroscience also reveals addictive drugs work on precisely the same brain systems that guide our survival decisions. This is compounded by industrial global capitalism, making the exposure to psychoactive substance nearly universal.

“These two combined realities — our evolutionary conserved vulnerability to addiction and the development of a production and transportation system that can deliver substances worldwide — is why one in six deaths on the planet among adults is attributable to psychoactive substance abuse,” he said.

Stanford researchers are going after the problem in two ways. First, they're using neuroscience to unravel the mechanisms of addiction in the brain. In addition, they're working directly with policymakers, such as those who regulate the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, as well as those who oversee health-care and criminal justice systems.

“We communicate to our friends in the policy world what science has to teach about addiction and how you can use that information to do a better job at protecting people and promoting public health,” said Humphreys, adding that one of their key messages is that psychoactive substances are not ordinary commodities that should be free of regulation.

“That’s probably true for broccoli, but it’s not true for psychoactive substances because they impair our brain’s ability to value things,” he said. And that is why public health policies must take into account the evolutionary-conserved circuits in the brain.

“The magnificent decision-making organ that evolution has bequeathed us is vulnerable to addiction, perhaps particularly if we live on the lower tiers of society. This creates a risk for humanity,” Humphreys said. “Karl Marx was worried that religion would become the opiate of the masses. But if we don’t use neuroscience to make better treatments and better policies regarding addiction, the opiate of the masses will be opiates.”

Humphreys is on the NeuroChoice team at the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. Team members attended the economic forum to present their research into the neural basis of decision-making and how these impact public policy.

Beth Duff-Brown is the communications manager at Stanford Health Policy.

Previously: Overprescribing of opioids is not just limited to a few bad apples, Decisions, decisions: How evolution shaped our decision-making and Stanford addiction expert: "The country needs to spring into action" on heroin epidemic

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