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Consider two people: Mike and Jim. After a stressful day at work, Mike drinks a beer to help him unwind before having dinner with his family. He watches a bit of TV, and then goes to bed. Jim comes home from an equally stressful work day, plans to drink a beer, maybe two, but ends up having a 6-pack before polishing off a pint of vodka. This is a regular occurrence for Jim as he becomes increasingly argumentative with his family before going out to purchase more liquor. He gets arrested for driving under the influence and shows up late for work the next day, causing additional personal and financial strain on him and his family.
What factors are behind these different scenarios? Why is it so easy for Mike to control his alcohol intake while Jim binge drinks despite the persistent problems caused or exacerbated by alcohol? What are the motivating factors behind drug and alcohol consumption, and how do drugs affect behavior? Can stress, anxiety, or depression play a role in drug response?
Right now, my work in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, directed by Harriet de Wit, PhD, looks to answer these questions. We measure the effects of drugs and alcohol in healthy volunteers to improve our understanding of what drives responses to these substances.
Each person possesses their own unique risk of developing a substance use disorder. This risk can be the product of inherent traits, such as personality, or unique interactions between one's genetic makeup and the environment where they live. In our lab, we measure the effects of not just alcohol, but also stimulants (amphetamines), stimulants/hallucinogens (MDMA, "ecstasy"), depressants (anti-anxiety drugs), and marijuana-like drugs, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Recently, I have been studying how the pleasurable effects of drugs can be altered in people prone to mood elevation, as some research has shown that people with a history of mood elevation report dampened responses to alcohol, which may be a risk factor of abuse because these people need to drink more alcohol to achieve its desired effects.
Not all drugs produce noticeable, psychoactive effects. We also study lesser-known drugs that may alter mood and behavior in other ways. Recently, I completed a study that investigated the effects of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive drug found in the cannabis (marijuana) leaf. CBD has little abuse potential because it does not produce feelings of 'high' or 'euphoria', so researchers are actively studying if it can be used as a medicine to treat various diseases and mental disorders.
Drug abuse remains a major global health burden. Recent data indicate that 66.7 million people in the United States aged 12 or older report binge drinking in the past month and 27.1 million people aged 12 or older report using an illicit substance in that same timeframe. Furthermore, these numbers do not reflect the millions of Americans dependent on prescription pain killers, which, in 2016 spurred the United States Surgeon General to write a letter to every physician in the country asking them to take measures to diminish the opioid crisis currently sweeping the nation.
Drugs, as a medicine or poison, have the ability to cure and kill, and some drugs can carry significant abuse potential. Not everyone has someone like Jim in their family, but most people know of someone who has struggled with addiction. Ultimately, my hope is that my research here at The University of Chicago will lead to better approaches to prevent and treat drug abuse.