Neuroscience and Society: The Opioid Epidemic

opioid_deaths_2color

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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Sleep Awareness Week Interview with Clifford Saper

Sleep Disorder

Image: Shutterstock

Who wouldn’t enjoy an extra hour or two of sleep before climbing out of bed and getting ready for work? A good night’s rest, or lack thereof, not only contributes to the following day’s productivity levels and emotions, but also its long-term effects are linked to cognitive and cardiovascular health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night, and research points sleeping less than seven to eight hours each night to health risks such as stroke, obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure.

For National Sleep Awareness Week (April 23 – 29), we asked sleep expert Clifford B. Saper, M.D., Ph.D., to discuss the importance of sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, and current research at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, where he conducts his lab research and heads the neurology department. Saper is also a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member and past Dana Foundation grantee.

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New Paper: Incorporating Sex Influences into Today’s Brain Research

Historically, most medical research has used male subjects (human and animal) and tissues, but recently there has been a notable increase in the acceptance of the need to incorporate sex influences into brain research. in 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that all future biomedical research funded by the agency include sex differences.

But two years after the NIH passed its mandate, the research community continues to debate how best to address sex as a biological variable.

Why not just introduce female subjects to the studies, you might wonder, but it’s not that simple, as Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital explains in our new briefing paper:

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Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

brain_obama_robotics

President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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Joshua Gordon Named New Head of NIMH

Guest Post by Kayt Sukel

joshua gordonIn late July, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it had finally completed its nearly year-long search for a new director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said that the agency had selected Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., currently an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, to take the helm of the $1.5 billion federal agency governing mental health research, replacing former director Thomas Insel. He is expected to start in September.

 

In the press release announcing the selection, Collins said, “Josh is a visionary psychiatrist and neuroscientist with deep experience in mental health research and practice. He is exceptionally well qualified to lead the NIMH research agenda to improve mental health and treatments for mental illnesses. We’re thrilled to have him join the NIH leadership team.

Gordon, whose research program focused on integrative genetic models of psychiatric disease, spoke with the Dana Foundation about why he wanted to take on this new role in his career, the importance of collaboration and communication, and where he hopes to see the agency go under his leadership.

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