Public Release: 

Brookhaven National Lab Named Drug Addiction Study Center

DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory

Upton, NY - Building on their decades of forefront addiction research, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have announced they will soon open a new medical research center to study the biochemical roots of drug abuse.

Research at the center will focus on drugs such as cocaine, heroin and nicotine, using imaging techniques to "see" how they affect the brain's chemistry and cause addiction. Such work is expected to help in the development of drug addiction treatments.

Several agencies have joined to fund the new center, including the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, which sponsors a Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center; the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health; and DOE's Office of Health and Environmental Research.

ONDCP head Gen. Barry McCaffrey said, "We chose Brookhaven because its team of scientists has an impressive track record. It was the first to demonstrate that cocaine impacts the brain physiologically, not just psychologically."

McCaffrey continued, "We hope that this topnotch team of scientists, newly armed with the best technology available, will be able to unlock mysteries of the brain that in turn will lead the way to the creation of new medications against addictive drugs. This advanced brain research will give the nation new hope for victories in the struggle against drug crime and addiction."

Said NIDA director Dr. Alan L. Leshner, "This state-of-the-art imaging technology gives scientists an exciting vantage point for studying the essential biological bases of addiction. We are now able to understand how drugs of abuse affect the intricate systems of our brains and, in turn, how the affected systems can produce addiction."

"We are proud to accept the challenge of fighting drug abuse through better understanding of the chemical origins of addictive behavior," said Nora Volkow, head of BNL's Medical Department and a lead researcher on the center's scientific team.

"Addiction is a major public health problem affecting many millions of people in the United States and beyond," Volkow continued. "Our past research has identified specific biochemical changes in the brains of drug addicts, but we have just scratched the surface and much still needs to be learned."

In 1987, BNL became the first research institution to use PET and other medical imaging techniques to investigate the brain mechanisms underlying drug addiction. BNL scientists were pioneer developers of PET technology, and of the radiotracer drugs whose movement in the brain is tracked by PET scans, including cocaine for addiction studies and a form of glucose now used in hospitals and research institutions worldwide to make images of brain function and diagnose cancer.

Using the cocaine radiotracer, BNL scientists made the first images of cocaine in the brain and the first studies linking cocaine's effects on brain function to the compulsive use of the drug. These efforts led to the first documentation of stroke-like changes in the brains of cocaine abusers, and the beginning of a series of studies to map the biochemical and anatomical changes responsible for drug-addictive behaviors.

One recent study at Brookhaven compared the behavior of cocaine and the psychostimulant drug methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, in the brain, in an effort to evaluate different approaches for treating addiction. Another study showed that smokers have a marked decrease in a brain enzyme which breaks down brain chemicals involved in pleasure and reward. "Since this enzyme is not affected by nicotine, we need to look beyond nicotine in trying to understand smoking addiction," said Volkow's colleague, Joanna Fowler.

Drs. Volkow and Fowler have outlined an ambitious research plan for the center:

  • Cocaine and related drugs: Research will study cocaine addicts' altered brain chemistry, the drug's toxic and addictive properties, and other drugs with similar effects on the brain, including methylphenidate and experimental addiction treatments.

  • Heroin and Opiates: Opiates are highly addictive among illegal drug users, but are also used in pain management for disease patients. A better understanding of how they work on the brain may help optimize their beneficial use while providing information on how to combat addiction.

  • Tobacco, alcohol and marijuana: Studies are also planned on these substances, to improve understanding of addictions and other health effects. A PET tracer for nicotine has been made at BNL, while one for marijuana is being developed.

Volkow also expects the center's studies to have an impact on other areas related to drug addiction. "Since certain drugs affect the immune system," she explained, "they make addicts more vulnerable to increased risk of infection from disease agents such as the AIDS virus. Anything we can do to fight addiction will also fight the spread of disease."

The addiction studies center will build on the existing BNL Center for Imaging and Neurosciences, which includes both high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanning facilities.

Collaborations with other institutions will play a large part in the new addiction-studies center. Scientists at Columbia University, the North Shore University Hospital, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the Veterans Administration Medical Centers at Northport and Manhattan, New York University, the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina and Georgia's Emory University are all new or existing collaborators.

The studies, which must be approved by several institutional review boards, will involve healthy volunteer subjects and drug addictions patients from the Northport, Manhattan and Bronx Veterans' Administration hospitals, and the areas around the North Shore and Columbia hospitals.

Brookhaven National Laboratory carries out basic and applied research in the physical, biomedical and environmental sciences and in selected energy technologies. Brookhaven is operated by Associated Universities, Inc., a nonprofit research management organization, under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.

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