LU professor explains the science behind addictions
For some people, it only takes small amounts of alcohol or one line of cocaine to become addicted.
But why are so many others able to walk away and lead normal lives?
Carrie Wilmouth, Ph.D., Liberty University Department of Psychology, helped answer some of these questions in a special presentation at Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine (LUCOM) on Feb. 18, part of the Biomedical Frontiers Seminar Series hosted by the LUCOM Center for Research.
“We know upwards of 90 percent of individuals will at one point in their lives be exposed to or experiment with drugs or alcohol,” said Dr. Wilmouth. “A small percentage of those will go on to develop a substance use disorder. Of those people, a small percentage will have a very hard time being successful with treatment for that disorder.”
Dr. Wilmouth focused on those individuals, the small percentage that cannot overcome their addiction, by breaking down a series of animal and human studies.
She noted that the studies suggest certain individuals with addiction problems could be born with or develop a brain that is more sensitive to the effects of one or more drugs, prior to ever coming into contact with the substance.
“It’s kind of like a perfect storm. Will you develop a substance use disorder if you never use a drug? No, absolutely not. But once you are exposed to the drug, for those susceptible individuals in particular, it’s very hard for them to kick the habit,” said Dr. Wilmouth.
Dr. Wilmouth explained how this type of brain alteration works by simplifying the relationship between the brain’s striatal and inhibitory systems.
“The striatal system is your ‘Go’ system. When engaged, it says, ‘This feels good, I want to repeat this.’ Then, you have your inhibitory system that says ‘Stop,’” said Dr. Wilmouth. “What may happen for some people, even before they are exposed to drugs, is they have an overactive ‘Go’ system and an underactive ‘Stop’ system. If a person is born or develops these types of brain systems and functions, the result is a type of brain that is going to be very responsive when exposed to drugs for the first time.”
Joseph Brewer, Ph.D., Associate Dean of the Center for Research, says LUCOM student-doctors will benefit from knowing about this type of important research as they encounter individuals with neurological and substance abuse problems during their careers.
“Substance abuse is a complex problem that profoundly affects the health and well-being of many people. Factors including environmental influences, genetic tendencies and neurological biochemical and receptor susceptibility alterations all predispose certain individuals to addictions,” said Dr. Brewer.
Concluding with the core principles of osteopathic medicine, Dr. Brewer encouraged student-doctors to develop an understanding of research protocol and the interpretation of statistical outcomes so they are better able to understand and apply information for the benefit of the patient. In this case, understanding the principles of research about the brain will make them better prepared to treat their patients and not just the addiction.
“In order to provide the best care for the patient, our student-doctors will need to know their patients, especially their backgrounds and life situations, as well if not better than they know the disease process itself,” said Dr. Brewer.