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Getting to know addiction to prevent and treat it
Methamphetamine abuse has very obvious "real world" impacts on addicts and our communities. It can be challenging to relate the work a scientist does at a computer or a lab bench with what's going on in the county jail or someone's living room.
To treat methamphetamine abuse effectively, however, and to prevent it, we need to understand how it works. What happens when someone becomes a meth addict? Answering this question gets us a long way toward treating the problem.
Our mission at the MARC (Methamphetamine Abuse Research Center) is to answer this question at many levels: "to characterize the effects of methamphetamine use and withdrawal at the molecular, neurochemical, anatomical, behavioral, and clinical levels, and to identify obstacles to recovery in methamphetamine abusers. "
Here are some examples of how this looks in action:
"Impulsivity" has been defined various ways. For example, "acting or speaking too quickly without first thinking of the consequences." Or "inclined to act on impulse rather than thought."
Scientists already know that methamphetamine abusers, like many other drug users, tend to be more impulsive than the population at large.
That leads to a chicken-or-egg question: Do drug abusers abuse drugs because they're more impulsive to start with, and therefore more likely to try something risky? Or do they start out the same as everyone else, but their drug use makes them more impulsive? Or both?
Unfortunately, it's hard to answer that question by studying people who are already drug abusers. It's too late to measure how impulsive they were before they started using drugs.
And because methamphetamine is a highly addictive and dangerous drug, society deems it unethical to take a normal, healthy human who's never used methamphetamine and administer it to him or her for the sake of research. The risk to that person would be too high.
For those reasons, researchers turn to what we call "animal models." These are animals (here, usually mice or rats) that provide us with a way to see what happens when a creature similar to us starts using a drug.
To ensure that these animals receive humane treatment, the MARC, like all NIH-funded facilities, is strictly monitored by the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.
In one of our MARC studies, investigator Suzanne Mitchell will take young mice who've never been exposed to methamphetamine and test their levels of impulsivity. Would they rather have a small treat right now, or a bigger treat a bit later?
Then, the mice are offered a methamphetamine solution to drink, and Dr. Mitchell's lab will observe whether the more impulsive mice are more likely to become addicted to drinking the drug. When the mice go through another round of impulsivity testing, we'll find out whether using methamphetamine makes any or all of them more impulsive.
Why it's important to know this: Measuring impulsivity in both children and adults is relatively straightforward. If we find out that a tendency toward impulsive behavior makes someone more likely to try drugs, we can identify early in life those who are at risk and intervene.
Ideally, we'd be able to stop drug abuse before it even starts.
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