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National Institute on Drug Abuse -  NIDA NOTES
Director's Column
Volume 10, Number 2
March/April 1995

Broadening NIDA's Basic Research on Behavior

"I believe the best way to study drug abuse is to have a broader perspective that includes the full range of social and behavioral sciences"

By Dr. Alan I. Leshner, NIDA Director
Basic behavioral research has always played an important role in NIDA's search for solutions to the complex social and public health problems posed by drug abuse and addiction. Along with NIDA's basic molecular and neuroscience research programs, behavioral research has helped to increase our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that underlie addiction.

However, to date, NIDA's basic behavioral research has relied primarily on the behavioral reinforcement model to explore why animals and humans abuse drugs and to help determine the abuse liability of specific substances. Although this model has given us a great deal of useful information, and continues to do so, I believe the best way to study drug abuse is to have a broader perspective that includes the full range of social and behavioral sciences. Such an approach is more likely to expand our knowledge and lead to a more complete understanding of the brain and behavior.

Therefore, while maintaining our current research base, we are dramatically expanding NIDA's basic behavioral research portfolio to learn more about the ways in which animals and humans respond to their environment and the role these basic behavioral processes play in drug abuse and other drug-abuse-related phenomena, such as withdrawal, craving, and relapse.

Our expanded behavioral sciences research initiative seeks to recruit fresh perspectives; to foster innovation, originality, and creativity; and to delve into the behavioral roots of drug-abuse-related problems to find the most effective ways to solve these problems. To accomplish these goals, we have established a Behavioral Sciences Research Branch in our Division of Basic Research. (See NIDA Reorganization Enhances AIDS, Other Research Programs) This Branch, which replaces our former Behavioral Pharmacology Branch, is headed by Dr. Jaylan S. Turkkan, a research psychologist, who has done work in cognitive and experimental psychology on learning and behavior.

Dr. Turkkan will lead NIDA's efforts to widen the focus of our basic behavioral research to include the areas of social and cognitive psychology. By bringing the full range of social and psychological sciences to bear on the complex behavioral processes that are involved in drug abuse, we should gain access to new research tools and perspectives that will give us novel ways to approach drug abuse and addiction-related behaviors. We plan to encourage basic behavioral research using such new approaches through a variety of mechanisms that may include research training, grant supplements, program announcements, cooperative agreements, and seminars.

The Behavioral Sciences Research Branch has already begun to reach out to behavioral researchers who are experts not only in drug abuse but in fields other than drug abuse as well. The Branch invited 14 leading behavioral and social scientists from around the country, including several NIDA grantees and a researcher from NIDA's Intramural Research Division, to a workshop held in March at the National Institutes of Health. At the workshop, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists, biopsychologists, neuroscientists, behavioral pharmacologists, alcoholism researchers, and experts in other addictions "brainstormed" with NIDA staff about new ways to study drug abuse and addictive behaviors.

This workshop demonstrated that experts from these diverse disciplines have much to offer drug abuse research. Social psychologists can help us learn more about the effects of drugs and drug use in actual social settings. Through both controlled studies of people interacting in laboratory settings and field studies, these scientists can give us new information about the role of specific settings, peer influences, moods, and psychological states in drug-taking behavior. Cognitive psychologists can apply to drug abuse research the techniques they have developed to look at changes in cognition and brain function. Researchers using these techniques could ask sophisticated questions about the roles learning and memory play in drug abuse and, in turn, about the effects drug abuse has on learning and memory. Experts in eating and drinking behaviors also can give us important insights into commonalities among excessive behaviors, such as binge drinking and eating and drug abuse.

Tapping the full spectrum of behavioral sciences will also help us fill gaps in our knowledge about drug abuse. For example, to develop better drug abuse treatments, we need a better understanding of why people crave drugs. To take a fresh look at this phenomenon, the Behavioral Sciences Research Branch is planning to hold a meeting this summer that will include experts in craving and related behaviors from both drug abuse and nondrug abuse fields. Among the scientists and practitioners we are planning to invite to the workshop are a researcher who studies obsessive-compulsive behavior, an alcoholism researcher, a neurobiologist who conducts imaging studies of the brain during craving, drug abuse treatment practitioners who deal with craving in treatment settings, and basic behavioral scientists who view craving as a learned behavior.

Our expanded behavioral sciences research efforts will increase scientific knowledge about how humans learn to abuse drugs, how environmental and social factors affect drug-taking behaviors, and how people addicted to drugs remember and forget the environmental cues that may trigger craving and relapse. Ultimately, clinical researchers will use this knowledge to develop new and more effective behavioral approaches that practitioners can apply to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse and addiction. (See NIDA Program Promises Better Behavioral Treatments for Drug Abuse Patients

From NIDA NOTES, March/April 1995

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