Symposium Seeks to Start a Conversation About Addiction
The University of Missouri will host The Science of Addiction Symposium Dec. 6 at the Bond Life Sciences Center to launch a broader collaboration among researchers and professionals focusing on addiction. A primary goal is to chart a path forward for addiction-related work at the university. Professor Jamie Arndt, chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences at MU, emailed Professor Denis McCarthy and Curators’ Professor of Psychological Sciences Kenneth J. Sher, both national leaders in addiction science, about putting together an interdisciplinary conference on addiction after hearing Chancellor Alexander Cartwright and President Mun Choi talk about the need for more interdisciplinary collaboration throughout the university system.
“That idea then gained momentum, prompting the question, ‘How can we make this a signature event to initiate and, importantly, sustain cooperative research and engagement efforts?’ The conversations about the symposium unveiled the need across campus to have a coordinated center to help facilitate these kinds of collaborative efforts,” Arndt says.
Meeting Missouri’s Needs
McCarthy says that in addition to increasing collaboration among MU researchers, he and his colleagues would ultimately like to establish a Center of Excellence to coordinate efforts across the four UM campuses and the state to combat addiction.
“Addiction is an ongoing problem in society, and the opiate crisis has increased awareness of how devastating addiction can be, and how many people are affected directly or indirectly by addiction,” McCarthy says. “Coordinating the university’s efforts to combat addiction in a center will not only facilitate collaboration on campus, but help us work with other agencies, groups, and foundations around the state that are trying to address this problem. MU did something similar in the 2000s in response to rising rates of autism diagnoses in children, and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is now an important way the university serves the people of Missouri.”
Arndt says addiction is a prolific feature of the human condition, and that’s part of what makes this such an important issue to study.
“The propensity to be addicted to substances or behaviors is so widespread it almost seems to be a defining feature of the human condition. Part of what is exciting about the approach we are looking at is exploring not just the current manifestation but also the underlying processes, the underlying causes, and the generalizable features that enable us to help address not just the current addiction but also those to come,” he says. “In 2016, one of every 66 deaths was due to opioids, but last decade it was meth, and the decade before we had other issues. So there’s this sort of revolving door of a particularly pressing addiction, and underlying all of that are longstanding issues with alcohol.”
The Multidisciplinary Nature of Addiction
Sher emphasizes that it’s difficult to imagine any single problem that touches upon the expertise of multiple academic disciplines at MU more than that posed by addiction. According to Sher, “explicating the nature of addiction, how it comes about, what maintains it, and how to treat and prevent it requires a multi-disciplinary approach that requires expertise in pharmacology, genetics, physiology, psychological sciences, economics, social forces, public policy, public health, multiple medical specialties, and other disciplines. The role of substance use in the lives of many distinguished writers and creative artists, and its roles in diverse societies throughout history highlights the fact that not only do the behavioral, social, and life sciences share a common interest in addiction, but that the humanities also have much to add to our knowledge of addiction and substance use in the human condition. Indeed, one could arguably construct an entire curriculum based solely around the topic of addiction and produce well-rounded students.”
Addressing Causes and Consequences
McCarthy says exposure is a key component of addiction, noting that if you’ve never been exposed to alcohol you cannot become an alcoholic. This helps to explain why it may seem like we have more problems with opiate addiction than in years past.
“It’s not that all of a sudden more people are prone to be addicted to a specific drug—it’s that more people get the opportunity to use that drug,” McCarthy says. “Once it’s everywhere, and it’s cheap, people who have a liability to addiction will use who would not have otherwise. The opiate crisis kind of snuck up us, in terms of public awareness and widespread response at least. One of my goals for a center is that we would have enough addiction policy research to catch the next shift earlier.”
McCarthy says although we will always have problems with addiction, he remains optimistic he and his colleagues are making a difference.
“We have made tremendous strides in certain types of addictions,” he says. “Even if we can’t eliminate the underlying propensity to be addicted, we’ve moved so many people off of tobacco, and we are still working to improve treatment for those who still smoke. This has saved a lot of lives. Drinking and driving is my area of expertise— it isn’t that people drink less today than in the 80s, but they are much less likely to get behind the wheel today if they have been drinking. That is a credit to the policy and prevention methods advocated by scientists and organizations like MADD. So we can prevent the extreme consequences of addiction as we seek to understand the underlying causes”
McCarthy and Arndt say a key component of the symposium and the push for a Center of Excellence is the involvement of University Extension.
“One of the unique features that excites us is not only the basic science research that the four campuses offer but also the ability to reach throughout the state to rural and urban areas through Extension,” Arndt says.
“Having a center in Columbia doesn’t help that many people in the state, but having a center in Columbia that reaches out, trains people, and sends them out into all corners of the state will make a difference,” McCarthy says. “There’s no part of the state that doesn’t need some education and training services in addiction.”
In fact, Rachel Winograd, one the scheduled speakers at the symposium, received training from Sher when she was a graduate student at MU.
“What I like about Rachel being one of the speakers is it highlights what we’ve been saying—we can produce people who go out and make a change in the world,” McCarthy says. “She was trained here, and she’s having a big impact in St. Louis. A lot of our trainees go to the top universities and programs throughout the country, but if we want to keep them in Missouri and help the people of Missouri, we have to create mechanisms for them to thrive like Rachel has found at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.”
MU’s History of Training Leaders in Addiction
In addition to training recent graduates like Winograd, MA ’11, PhD ’16 clinical psychology, many of the nation’s leaders in addiction research have trained at MU and have gone on to not only conduct cutting-edge research at other universities and research institutes but have developed their own distinguished training programs. According to Sher, “it’s immensely gratifying to meet early-career scientists from other universities who feel an infinity to MU because their mentor or mentors trained there and feel a part of their academic DNA traces back here. As an educator, the propagation of research skills and interests across generations of trainees is a primary goal, amplifying the impact of our work beyond the campus and state to the nation and across the globe.”
McCarthy says the symposium will start with a broad picture of addiction in society and then focus on the three most important things your parents might want to know about: what is addiction, what are people doing about the opioid crisis, and what is the next phase of research and intervention?
For more information about the speakers and the topics they will address at The Science of Addiction Symposium, click coas.missouri.edu/event/addiction-symp.