Neuroscience and Society: The Opioid Epidemic

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html

“We’ve moved from an epidemic to a crisis” in opioid abuse in the United States, said Daniel Ciccarone, M.D., MPH, during a panel discussion at AAAS in Washington, DC, this week. Ciccarone, a doctor at University of California, San Francisco, who treats addicted people and does research, described a pattern of intertwined waves involving abuse of prescription pills, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

For example, while overdose deaths due to prescription pill use are spread relatively evenly across the country, “this is not true for heroin,” Ciccarone said. The Northeast has had troubles with opioid abuse for a generation, while in the Midwest, numbers have jumped just recently. And while older folks (50-64) are using pills in greater numbers, it’s younger people (20-35) driving heroin use.

“Heroin itself is becoming more and more dangerous,” he said, especially when it is laced with synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil (used to tranquilize elephants). People who stop breathing after using these stronger concoctions often don’t respond to emergency treatments like naloxone.

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Free Public Event: The Opioid Epidemic

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Image: Shutterstock

Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, with overdoses and deaths caused by prescribed and “street” drugs on the rise. The accelerating abuse of opioids includes not only painkillers that have legitimate uses, but heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl as well. The epidemic is not limited to inner city pockets of poverty; small-town America is also overcome by a tsunami of opioid addiction, putting strains on state and local social services and criminal justice systems. Join us for an event that will address the demographics and sociology of the opioid epidemic, the science of opioid addiction, and treatment options.
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Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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The Anxious Brain

“Since the 1960s, billions of dollars and probably millions of animals have gone into the search for new and better anti-anxiety medications,” said researcher Joseph LeDoux at an event this week on anxiety at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But drug makers, who have spent years targeting points along a brain pathway described as the “fear circuit” in animals, haven’t had the success they sought; they have stopped funding many studies. Why?

LeDoux, a Dana Alliance member at New York University who has studied this circuit for the past three decades, argues that the term we use may have blinded us to what the circuit actually does. Instead of labeling it with a human feeling, it would better to call it an unconscious “defensive survival circuit.” Other inputs lead to the conscious feelings of fear and anxiety. For example, while hiking, we have already recoiled from the snake on the trail before our conscious minds have hit the danger signal. The two things happen so fast, though, it’s easy to think the feeling led to the action—but we’re committing the first sin of science: confusing correlation and causation, LeDoux said.

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From left: moderator Mark Frankel, Joseph LeDoux, and Daniel Pine field questions from the audience.

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Closing the Language Skills Gap Among Children

Here’s the full video from the latest #neuroseries forum, in September; it was so rich in data and ideas that I watched it twice before writing a story about the event for our website. One of my favorite parts is researcher Anne Fernald’s’s description and video showing how fast language-processing speed improves from when a child is 18 months old to when he is 30 months old. Not only is it an easy-to-follow example of how to test language ability in preverbal children, but I love the boy’s attitude when he knows he’s got it right.

I have the short clip with my story; in this video it starts at the 15:05 mark.

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