Addiction symposium highlights Penn State research collaboration

April 1, 2016 at 10:40 am Leave a comment

Dr. Sue Grigson

Dr. Sue Grigson

Why do many gastric bypass surgery patients develop alcohol and substance abuse problems? Do rare genetic variants influence antisocial drug dependence? Can a phone app reduce heavy drinking in college students? How can researchers provoke intense cravings during brain scans to help understand them better? Can we use such information to predict who is vulnerable to relapse and who is resilient?

These are just a few of the questions addiction researchers in the lab and in the clinic face today. And each of these topics will be in the spotlight on April 4, during the Second Annual Penn State Addiction Symposium. The meeting will bring together faculty, staff and students from across the university’s campuses to advance an understanding of the disease and explore new ways to treat it.

“Even at the same institution, it’s possible to not know what other people are doing in a very similar field,” says Dr. Sue Grigson, professor of neural and behavioral sciences. To help to bridge this gap, she worked with Sarah Ballard, administrative assistant for the department of neural and behavioral sciences, and Bill Milchak, instructor of psychiatry, Penn State College of Medicine – and a licensed social worker and a certified addiction counselor – to organize this year’s meeting.

Dr. Grigson’s lab investigates reward pathways in addiction – and why some individuals might choose a drug over natural rewards like relationships, jobs and food. This preclinical work dovetails nicely with the clinical work of Dr. Scott Bunce, associate professor of psychiatry at the College of Medicine and this year’s featured speaker. Dr. Bunce will show that reduced responsiveness to natural rewards, and other measures, can be used to predict relapse in alcohol and opiate-dependent humans. Drs. Bo Cleveland and Michael Cleveland from the University Park campus will expand upon this work, as will Dr. Stephen Wilson, associate professor of psychology.

Collaborations like these are key to addiction research, says Dr. Roger Meyer, professor of psychiatry.

“One of the problems we deal with when we work in our own separate boxes is a perspective that is entirely too narrow to encompass the range of issues that confront us in the addiction area,” he says.

Dr. Meyer, who will be giving the symposium’s closing remarks, founded two addiction research centers focusing on multidisciplinary research in patients and in animal models.

“The conference is bringing together groups of people who don’t necessarily meet,” he says. “The neuroscientists don’t encounter very often the behavioral and social scientists or the human geneticists that are out there on the frontier of their disciplines even researching about melatonan2. This meeting gives us an opportunity to hear about each other’s work and to stimulate ideas between disciplines. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.”

Twenty-one faculty members will make short “data blitz” presentations highlighting their research and the needs of their patient populations. Presenters include basic scientists, clinical researchers, and physicians from the College of Medicine, Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, Eberly College of Science, College of Liberal Arts and Social Science Research Institute at main campus.

This type of cross-disciplinary approach is desperately needed to create a 360-degree understanding of the many factors that contribute to addiction, Dr. Meyer says.

While great knowledge advances are being made in the genetic risk of alcohol addiction, for example, genetics can only explain 50 percent of risk in relation to alcohol dependence, he says.

“Now we are coming to a point where, both from the perspective of epidemiology and from the perspective of animal models, we can begin to look at the effects of early stress in these different genetically at-risk individuals,” Meyer says.

The ultimate goal is to try to find ways to reduce the stressors in these families – often single-parent mothers living in poverty.

Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is giving the keynote address entitled “Neuroplasticity in the Brain Stress Systems and Addiction.” Among the faculty presenters on alcohol will be Dr. Nicole Crowley, a post-doctoral fellow in biology at University Park campus, who will be speaking about the links between alcohol abuse and depression. Dr. Andras Hajnal will talk about his preclinical work investigating the mechanisms by which gastric bypass surgery increases both alcohol and drug use disorders. Dr. John Hustad, associate professor of public health sciences, will discuss whether a phone app can reduce heavy drinking in college students.

But the meeting will cut across different drugs of abuse, including nicotine, opiate analgesics, cocaine and heroin. Dr. Jonathan Foulds, professor of public health sciences and psychiatry, is presenting on different levels of nicotine absorption from electronic versus traditional cigarettes, for example. Dr. Keri Donaldson, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, will discuss gene variants that predispose people to opioid addiction and Dr. Angela Henderson-Redmond, postdoctoral fellow of anesthesiology, will present on a gene variant that predisposes individuals to both opiate and alcohol addiction.

“It’s very important to be able to look across the different substances of abuse in order to see the commonalities,” Dr. Grigson says. “In some ways they’re very different, but in other ways – like the way they impact behavior – ultimately they’re very similar.”

The symposium is also drawing prominent members of the local addiction treatment community and representatives from the Pennsylvania government. Dr. Rachel Levine, professor of psychiatry and the physician general for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will briefly discuss the problem of drug and alcohol use disorders in Pennsylvania.

Addiction creates a huge financial burden, costing $700 billion annually nationwide. Dr. Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies, College of Health and Human Development, will highlight efforts to track impacts of substance abuse prevention efforts on public spending at the national and state level.

“By bringing together policy-related individuals, people who study health economics, some of the people who are involved in delivery of services to patients with addictive disorders and basic scientists, we are bringing this problem of addiction into the mainstream of academic medicine, which is where it belongs,” Dr. Meyer says. “It is our hope that by so doing, we will facilitate not only translation, but also education and more effective treatment as well,” Dr. Grigson says.

Last year’s addiction symposium is already bearing fruit. It spawned a mini-issue in the international journal Brain Research Bulletin, featuring 11 original research papers by the meeting’s participants. These papers are now available online and, the full mini-issue, include an opening editorial by Dr. Grigson,

Entry filed under: Alumni.

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