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Innovation and research are essential paths to understanding addiction. Researchers dedicate themselves to questions like: Why does one person with the same risk factors become addicted and another does not? What brain mechanisms turn on the reward centers that drive the compulsive use of substances in some people and not in others? Why can some people binge drink in college and then stop while others develop a lifelong disease of alcoholism? The answers lie in brain biology, physiology, and in how neural circuits work.
Current research has advanced along two major paths: First, to explore innovative approaches to treatment of addictive disorders, and second, growing attention to prevention.
Researchers principally ask ourselves, “How can we help people recover?” We want to discover what works, for which people, and when in the course of their illness. While we have some very effective treatments we have so much more to learn.
Addictions are chronic illnesses. But so are most medical illnesses. A medication that lowers blood pressure will stop working when stopped; but it’s still a very good medication! The same is true for treatments for diabetes, not only medication but also diet, stress reduction, and exercise all make a difference, and are needed. Innovation and research recognize addictions as chronic medical illnesses, like diabetes, hypertension and depression.
We have two key “allies” in our effort: “Big data”, namely, huge data sets that enable researchers to analyze large groups of people (called population studies) and discern specifics. For example, we may discover a group, a subpopulation, more susceptible to develop an opioid addiction than another group; that allows treatment studies of a more limited number of people that are more specific to those in need while at the same time preserving precious resources for other work.
The second ally is Genetic Analysis. As we further unlock our genetic code we can identify those more vulnerable to alcoholism. Drawing blood and studying samples are already part of our culture; we are used to checking our cholesterol and sugar, and need to do so for genetic markers for all conditions (as we now see in cancer treatment). We will get there for the addictions – both for identifying those at greater risk as well as identifying what treatments work best for whom and when. We are getting close, this is not just futuristic speculation.
Another innovative area of developing research is focusing on lifestyle interventions like exercise, mindfulness, yoga, and spirituality. The mind and body are one and need to be harnessed together to help make people better. Many patients are seeking alternatives to traditional Western medicine, and so many benefit from these approaches. Here too we need more research to show how these non-traditional, wellness approaches work and who can benefit from them.
With research and innovation we can offer hope, promise, for the future.