Alcohol and drug abuse are major public health issues. Here in middle Tennessee and throughout the US, addiction devastates public health in many different ways, ranging from the immediate toll it takes on the lives of individuals and families through overdoses, loss of jobs and ways of life to more delayed impacts on health through increased cancer rates, cardiovascular issues, etc. These impacts on the addicted individual, family and friends then spiral out into the larger community through driving while impaired incidents, transmission of communicable diseases, and domestic and sexual violence amongst other things. We in the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research (VCAR) think that to effectively curb this problem, we must gain a better understanding of the detailed molecular events that happen inside the brain to drive addictive behavior, and seek to develop treatment strategies based on this empirical knowledge.
Addiction is a uniquely frustrating disease since the problems it produces are brought on by the individual’s intake of a substance or performance of a behavior despite understanding at least some of the negative consequences. Thus the apparent “cure” seems so tantalizingly simple…just stop. For many years research and rehabilitative medicine focused on the initial negative consequences of cessation of intake, withdrawal. Increasingly however, addiction is understood as a long-lasting brain disease that long outlasts acute withdrawal. Relapse driven by learned associations (cue, context) as well as by mental state transitions (stress, anxiety) can occur long after obvious negative consequences of cessation of drug intake have stopped. Thus, intense focus is being placed on neural mechanisms driving drug “craving” sensation and initiation of relapse to intake after extinction. The VCAR is heavily invested in developing an understanding of these mechanisms so that needed novel strategies can be developed to intervene. The VCAR recognizes that progress to reduce the problem of addiction will come from findings gleaned across multiple disciplines, including basic neuroscientists, physiologists, pharmacologists, engineers, psychiatrists and others. The VCAR seeks to have a positive impact on the disease of addiction both locally and globally through research, education and outreach.