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Addiction, Behavioral Science, Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Found: a novel assembly line in brain whose product may prevent alcoholism

Found: a novel assembly line in brain whose product may prevent alcoholism

alcohol silhouette

High-functioning binge drinkers can seem charming and stylish. The ultimate case in point: Nick and Nora of the famed Thirties/Forties “Thin Man” film series (you can skip the ad after the first few seconds).

But alcoholism’s terrific toll is better sighted on city streets than in celluloid skyscraper scenarios. At least half of all homeless people suffer from dependence on one or another addictive drug. (My Stanford Medicine article “The Neuroscience of Need” explores the physiology of addiction.) Alcohol, the most commonly abused of them all (not counting nicotine), has proved to be a particularly hard one to shake.

Alcoholism is an immense national and international health problem,” I wrote the other day in a news release explaining an exciting step toward a possible cure:

More than 200 million people globally, including 18 million Americans, suffer from it. Binge drinking [roughly four drinks in a single session for a man, five for a woman] substantially increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism. As many as one in four American adults report having engaged in binge drinking in the past month.

While there are a few approved drugs that induce great discomfort when a person uses them drinks alcohol, reduce its pleasant effects, or alleviate some of its unpleasant ones, there’s as of yet no “magic bullet” medication that eliminates the powerful cravings driving the addictive behavior to begin with.

But a study, just published in Science, by Stanford neuroscientist Jun Ding, PhD, and his associates, may be holding the ticket to such a medication. In the study, Ding’s team identified a previously unknown biochemical assembly line, in a network of nerve cells strongly tied to addiction, that produces a substance whose effect appears to prevent pleasurable activity from becoming addictive. The substance, known as GABA, acts as a brake on downstream nerve-cell transmission.

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Addiction, Anesthesiology, Chronic Disease, Pain, Stanford News, Videos

“People are looking for better answers”: A conversation about chronic pain

"People are looking for better answers": A conversation about chronic pain

2048px-Low_back_painChronic pain limits the lives of an estimated 100 million people in one way or another and costs our country half a trillion dollars per year, according to Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Medicine. To address the needs of the many people suffering from back pain, the most common kind of chronic pain, Mackey and other doctors and researchers in the division recently held a free Back Pain Education Day.

The event was popular enough that all seats were filled more than a week ahead of time, and a video stream of the day’s speakers was viewed by almost 1,500 people during the conference and in the week following. Recordings of the day’s talks can now be viewed on the Division of Pain’s YouTube channel.

We don’t have a cure for chronic pain. What we have are exceptional ways [to help] people get back their lives

During a recent conversation, Mackey told me the big turn-out reflects the keen interest people living with back pain have in finding solutions. “People are looking for better answers: why they have what they have and what they can do about it,” he said. “We wanted to provide them with real-world tools that they can use to control their pain.”

Speakers at the event covered varied ground, including physical therapy approaches to pain management, new research in using acupuncture to treat pain, self-management strategies, mindfulness-based pain reduction and the important role of sleep in pain. (Recent research has shown that poor sleep can intensify and prolong pain.) One over-riding theme was the role of the brain, Mackey said, not just in terms how people experience pain, but also how it can help turn down or turn up pain.

Mackey cautions that a quick fix often isn’t possible, so people living with chronic pain need to think about long-term management. “It’s a chronic disease, like diabetes. We don’t have cures for diabetes, and we don’t have a cure for chronic pain,” he said. “What we have are exceptional ways to control the disease and ways [to help] people get back their lives.” Speaker Beth Darnall, PhD, the event co-chair, emphasized that pain psychology techniques can empower people to lessen distress and pain, and begin moving toward meaningful life goals.

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Addiction, Podcasts, Public Health

Heroin: The national epidemic

Heroin: The national epidemic

4132006028_1fbf0b4076_zWhen I think of New England, I don’t naturally conjure up an image of heroin. Yet today, many cities and towns in the bucolic northeast are facing a heroin epidemic. Clearly at odds with the image of the Atlantic Ocean lapping at seaside resorts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are each seeing disturbing trends. Illustrating the magnitude of the problem engulfing his state, Vermont’s Governor Pete Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to what he called “a full blown heroin crisis.”

Across the country too, heroin death are skyrocketing: According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 8,000 Americans died of heroin-related overdoses in 2013 – nearly three times as many as those who died in 2010.

So what’s fueling the explosion of heroin use? Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, told me in this 1:2:1 podcast that it’s largely propelled by the huge number of prescriptions for opioid pain killers. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 2 million Americans abuse prescription pain killers – and Humphreys says when the pills run out, many turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative and an equivalent high.

Recognizing the rippling toll on communities and families across the nation, the Obama administration announced a new program in August to combat the trafficking and use of the drug.  The Washington Post first reported the plan, saying that the initiative will pair public health officials and law enforcement in an effort to shift the emphasis from punishment to the treatment of addicts.

After hearing the heroin crisis also popping up in conversations from several presidential candidates during their jaunts to New Hampshire, I turned to Humphreys to dig deeper into the issue. In addition to being a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, Humpreys also spent a year in the White House Office of Drug Policy as a senior policy advisor during the first year of the Obama administration.

Previously: Assessing the opioid overdose epidemicA focus on addiction, the country’s leading cause of accidental deathWhy doctors prescribe opioids to patients they know are abusing them and Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk?
Photo by Lauri Rantala

Addiction, In the News, Myths, Patient Care, Public Health, Public Safety

“24/7 Sobriety” program may offer a simple fix for drunken driving

"24/7 Sobriety" program may offer a simple fix for drunken driving

8684229367_2826035583_zEvery now and then I read a story that takes what I think I know about a certain topic and turns it upside down. Today, my understanding of programs to reduce drunk driving were upended by an article written by Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford.

As Humphreys explains, many people mistakenly believe that no one can overcome a drinking problem without treatment involving a professional’s help. This, he says, is a myth, and the success of the “24/7 Sobriety” program highlights the importance of exploring and adopting new ways to combat drunken driving. From the Wall Street Journal article:

Offenders in 24/7 Sobriety can drive all they want to, but they are under a court order not to drink. Every morning and evening, for an average of five months, they visit a police facility to take a breathalyzer test. Unlike most consequences imposed by the criminal justice system, the penalties for noncompliance are swift, certain and modest. Drinking results in mandatory arrest, with a night or two in jail as the typical penalty.

The results have been stunning. Since 2005, the program has administered more than 7 million breathalyzer tests to over 30,000 participants. Offenders have both showed up and passed the test at a rate of over 99%.

Counties that used the 24/7 Sobriety program also had a 12% decrease in repeat drunken-driving arrests and a 9% drop in domestic-violence arrests, according to a 2013 study.

A possible reason why this program works — when attempts to help people with drinking problems often fail — is that the twice daily breathalyzer tests have immediate consequences, Humphreys explains. “It turns out that people with drug and alcohol problems are just like the rest of us. Their behavior is affected much more by what is definitely going to happen today than by what might or might not happen far in the future, even if the potential future consequences are more serious.”

Previously: Can the “24/7 sobriety” model reduce drunken disorderly conduct and violence in London?Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem and Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence
Photo by: KOMUnews

Addiction, Aging, Chronic Disease, Pain

National survey reveals extent of Americans living with pain

National survey reveals extent of Americans living with pain


Yesterday, the NIH announced a new analysis of data that examined how much pain people in America suffer. The findings, published in The Journal of Pain, were based on data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), an annual survey that asks a random sample of U.S. residents a wide variety of questions about their health.

The survey results are staggering: More than half of the adults in the country (126 million) had some kind of pain, minor to severe, in the three months before the survey. About 25 million had pain every day for that time frame and about 40 million suffer from severe pain. Those with the worst pain were also most likely to have worse health in general, use more health services and have more disabilities.

The survey also looked at complementary medicine approaches people take to dealing with their pain. Natural dietary supplements topped the list, followed by deep breathing and physical exercise such as yoga, tai chi or qi gong.

Joseph Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health was quoted in an article about the new study in the Washington Post:

The number of people who suffer from severe and lasting pain is striking. . . This analysis adds valuable new scope to our understanding of pain … It may help shape future research, development and targeting of effective pain interventions, including complementary health approaches.

Another topic the WaPo article touched on, which we’ve written about here at Scope, is the link between chronic pain and prescription painkiller abuse:

The prevalence of chronic pain in America also lies at the root of an ongoing epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse. Since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the amount of painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled.

Here at Stanford, the Division of Pain Medicine is sponsoring a free back pain education day on Saturday September 13. You can find out more details here.

Previously: Assessing the opioid overdose epidemicChronic pain: Getting your head around itFinding relief from lower back pain and Stanford researchers address the complexities of chronic pain
Photo by Steven Depolo

Addiction, Emergency Medicine, Health Costs, Patient Care, Research

Questionnaire bests blood test at identifying patients with risky drinking behaviors

Questionnaire bests blood test at identifying patients with risky drinking behaviors

3144132736_9de39a590d_zAs many as half of the patients who visit the emergency room with traumatic injuries have alcohol in their bloodstream, and roughly 10 percent of these patients will return to the ER within a year. Today, many emergency rooms use blood alcohol tests to screen for patients with risky drinking behaviors. Yet a new study by researchers from Loyola University Medical Center suggests that a questionnaire may be a better way to identify at-risk patients.

In the study, researchers reviewed 222 records from patients 18 years of age and older that were admitted to Loyola University Medical Center’s level I trauma center between May 2013 and June 2014. Each of the patients in the study had a blood alcohol test and had answered the World Health Organization‘s 10-point questionnaire, called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). The research team compared the results of the blood test to that of the AUDIT test and found that the questionnaire was 20 percent more effective at identifying at-risk patients with dangerous drinking habits than the blood test.

As the researchers explain in their study, blood alcohol tests only provide “a snapshot of the patient’s recent drinking behaviors” by measuring of the amount of alcohol in the patient’s system at the instant the test is taken. In contrast, the questionnaire assesses the patient’s overall drinking behaviors by asking questions such as, how often they drink, how much they drink per day and if they have feelings of guilt or remorse after drinking.

These findings are significant because blood alcohol tests are often the only tool used to assess at-risk drinking behavior in ER patients. Their findings call this common practice into question and suggest that the AUDIT questionnaire may be a better way to identify, and ultimately prevent, potentially dangerous drinking behaviors.

Previously: Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?Could better alcohol screening during doctor visits reduce underage drinking? and How to make alcoholics in recovery feel welcome this holiday season
Via: Business Wire
Photo by: Julie °_°

Addiction, Behavioral Science, Genetics, Research

Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?

Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?

man-69287_1280Drop into any support group meeting, and you’ll likely find that many of the addicts there had a parent who was also an addict. It’s estimated that alcoholism (now sometimes called alcohol-use disorder) is 50 percent heritable, although researchers have struggled to identify genes specifically associated with the condition.

The hunt continues for alcohol-use disorder related genes, and a new frontier in the field is the study of the epigenome, a term that refers to inherited changes that affect gene expression, rather than the genes themselves. A new review by a team based at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the journal Alcohol compiles all that is known about the effects of the epigenome on alcohol inheritance.

“Only recently, with improvements in technology to identify epigenetic modifications in germ cells, has it been possible to identify mechanisms by which paternal ethanol (alcohol) exposure alters offspring behavior,” the researchers wrote.

The basic mechanism is that traits can be passed on through modification of the proteins associated with DNA; these proteins control how genes are expressed. Several studies have examined the role of a father’s alcohol use in the time period surrounding conception, finding their children more likely to suffer from some psychiatric disorders; in research on mice, some effects of paternal alcohol use include low birth weight and decreased grooming. These effects are likely attributed to the alteration of the development of sperm, the researchers write.

Many mysteries remain, leaving plenty of opportunities for additional research. Now, the team is starting to examine how paternal exposure affects offspring’s alcohol consumption.

Previously: Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem, Could better alcohol screening during doctor visits reduce underage drinking? and Are some teens’ brains pre-wired for drug and alcohol experimentation?
Image by geralt

Addiction, Mental Health, Pain, Public Health, Technology

Student engineers unveil tamper-proof pill bottle

Student engineers unveil tamper-proof pill bottle

Pill-dispenserThe United States has been battling a prescription painkiller epidemic for years. The statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are chilling: The number of painkillers prescribed has quadrupled since 1999; more than two million people abused painkillers in 2013; every day, 44 people die from a prescription opioid overdose.

In response, faculty at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health issued a challenge to seniors in the university’s mechanical engineering program: build a pill bottle that would protect against theft and tampering.

One team of students came up with a design that worked so well that their team’s mentors Andrea Gielen, ScD, and Kavi Bhalla, PhD, submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health for further testing.

The device is about the size of a can of spray paint, much larger than the average pill bottle. It can only be opened with a special key, which pharmacists can use to refill with a month’s supply of OxyContin. A fingerprint sensor ensures only the prescribed patient can access the pills at prescribed intervals and doses. In a story on the Johns Hopkins website earlier this month, Megan Carney, one of the student engineers described how the pill dispenser works:

The device starts to work when the patient scans in his or her fingerprint. This rotates a disc, which picks up a pill from a loaded cartridge and empties it into the exit channel. The pill falls down the channel and lands on a platform where the patient can see that the pill has been dispensed. The patient then tilts the device and catches the pill in their hand.

A short video about the pill dispenser shows it in action, too. The dispenser still has to undergo additional testing, but the team hopes to bring it to market soon — and help prevent future opioid overdoses.

Previously: Unmet expectations: Testifying before Congress on the opioid abuse epidemic, The problem of prescription opioids: “An extraordinarily timely topic”, Assessing the opioid overdose epidemic, Why doctors prescribe opioids to patients they know are abusing them and Stanford addiction expert: It’s often a “subtle journey” from prescription-drug use to abuse
Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

Addiction, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Teens confused about harms of marijuana and e-cigarettes, Stanford study finds

Teens confused about harms of marijuana and e-cigarettes, Stanford study finds

smoking-skaterToday’s teenagers are familiar with the dangers of smoking conventional cigarettes, but they’re much less sure of the risks posed by marijuana and e-cigarettes, according to a Stanford study published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The researchers asked 24 high-school students in one Northern California school district about the benefits and risks they perceived from cigarettes, e-cigarettes and marijuana, and where they were getting information about each. The good news is that teens have clearly absorbed the message – from parents, teachers and public health campaigns – that cigarettes are bad for their health. And the kids surveyed saw no benefit to smoking cigarettes, suggesting that conventional cigarettes have lost the “cool” factor they once had among the young.

But there was a big gap in teens’ understanding of e-cigarettes and marijuana, as our press release about the research explains:

“Kids were really good at describing the harmful things that happen with cigarette smoking, but when we asked about other products, there was a lot of confusion,” said the study’s lead author, Maria Roditis, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in adolescent medicine.

“We’re good at delivering messaging that cigarettes are harmful, but we need to do a better job with other products that teens may smoke,” added Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, professor of pediatrics in adolescent medicine and the study’s senior author. “We don’t want the message kids get to be ‘cigarettes are bad, so everything else might be OK.’”

Teens need to hear about the risks of marijuana, including its damaging effects on the adolescent brain; its addictive potential; and its ability to damage the lungs, which is similar to that from inhaling smoke from any form of plant matter, Halpern-Felsher said. They also need to hear about the risks of e-cigarettes, which include the addictive properties of nicotine and the fact that flavor compounds in e-cigarettes can cause obstructive lung disease.

In a story about the research on, Halpern-Felsher speculated on some of the factors that may be affecting teens’ views of marijuana and e-cigarettes:

There are several possible reasons why teens may view the risks of smoking cigarettes differently than using marijuana or e-cigarettes. One reason involves advertising — although the tobacco industry can’t advertise on TV, in some print media or in any youth venue, similar restrictions don’t apply to e-cigarettes, Halpern-Felsher told Live Science.

Young people are seeing e-cigarettes in cool colors and cool flavors. They are also seeing celebrities use them, and that gives these products more exposure and makes them appealing, she said.

Previously: With e-cigarettes, tobacco isn’t the only danger, How e-cigarettes are sparking a new wave of tobacco marketing and To protect teens’ health, marijuana should not be legalized, says American Academy of Pediatrics
Photo by James Alby

Addiction, Health Policy, Pain, Public Health

Unmet expectations: Testifying before Congress on the opioid abuse epidemic

Unmet expectations: Testifying before Congress on the opioid abuse epidemic

capitol and Rayburn - 560

My recent trip to Washington D.C. to speak before a congressional subcommittee on the problem of opioid misuse was all about unmet expectations.

First of all, I never expected to get invited to testify for the U.S. Congress. A 2012 article I wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine on the problem of doctors over-prescribing opioids to patients was picked up by Washington Post journalist Charles Lane in a piece he did, “The legal drug epidemic,” which was subsequently read by Alan Slobodin, chief investigative counsel for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Slobodin then sent a message to my in-box asking to “discuss the opioid abuse problem.” I almost deleted it as a hoax. But Keith Humphreys, PhD, my mentor and chief of the mental health policy section in our department, assured me it was real.

Second, not really understanding how government works beyond what I learned from the animated musical cartoon “I’m Just a Bill” when I was seven years old, and being a regular reader of the New York Times, which has almost convinced me that everyone in Washington is against everyone else and nothing ever gets done, I prepared myself for the possibility that various members of the committee might just be looking for sound bites to support their pre-ordained opinions. I was wrong.

Slobodin and his staff were curious, earnest, intelligent, and dedicated to understanding the opioid problem at the deepest level. At the hearing itself, where I and other experts testified on the problem of opioid misuse, overdose, and addiction, Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), and Congresswoman Diana DeGette  (D-CO) didn’t go for each other’s jugular like a couple of vampires out of Twilight, which I thought might happen. Instead, they were courteous, collegial, and again, struck me as truly dedicated to ameliorating the problem of addiction in this country.

Third and finally, I didn’t imagine that my testimony would make much of a difference, yet some of my suggestions were picked up by members of the committee, including Bridgette DeHart, a senior policy advisor for Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY). DeHart is a whip-smart young woman who in ten minutes of conversation conveyed to me her sophisticated understanding of the opioid epidemic. She talked about incorporating one of my suggestions – mandating physician education on the use of Prescription Drug Monitoring Databases (PDMDs) at the time of DEA-licensure – into a larger bill that Clarke and her team are working on.

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