With the new year almost two weeks old, typical resolutions like quitting smoking or cutting back on caffeine consumption are testing students’ willpower.
But while students deal with the aftermath of addiction, like irritability and sleeplessness, Dr. Horace Loh and his colleagues search the brain for what causes the addiction in the first place.
Loh and eight other University researchers received a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Drug Addiction Research Center in Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Boynton Health Service employee Kusuma Madamala said almost 36 percent of University students have used some sort of tobacco in the last 30 days, according to a 1998 student health survey. More than 13.5 percent of students used marijuana or hashish and .2 percent used opiates, heroin or morphine in the last 30 days.
While other drug research centers focus on the abuse of these drugs, the University’s is the first to focus on the cellular and molecular level, said Loh, who is head of the Department of Pharmacology.
“The University of Minnesota is clearly among the leaders in the world as far as breadth and depth of scientists studying drug abuse,” said Dr. Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “A lot more synergy comes out of a center than an individual research grant,” he added.
The center uses an inter-disciplinary approach to research, Loh said.
“The center brings together eight scientists with different expertise in different areas,” said Loh, who is the center’s director.
Scientists from the departments of pharmacology, biochemistry and surgery and the College of Biological Sciences will study the effects of nicotine, caffeine, marijuana and opiates on cells and how the drugs create cravings within the cell tissue of the brain.
“Why you crave an addiction can be found somewhere in your cells,” Loh said. “Addiction is not, `I’m a bad person because I smoke pot.’ Addiction is a disease.”
Loh maintained that addiction is a disease just like heart disease or liver disease.
Just like research for other diseases, the ultimate goal for the center is to find out how to design better drugs. Loh uses aspirin to illustrate his point.
Although aspirin is used primarily to treat pain, it causes side effects such as stomach pain. Like aspirin, morphine is also used to treat and alleviate pain but is highly addictive.
Through cellular research, Loh said it will one day be possible to isolate the good effects of morphine and develop a new version of the drug without the addictive side effects.