Intention of research is to improve treatment for addictions and mental illness
LITTLE ROCK – How does the brain code the progressive development of addictions? Why are some people more disposed to life-long drug use disorders? A common risk factor for drug use, depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses is experiencing assault or trauma. As a clue to their association, how does the adolescent brain respond to trauma?
Those are some of the big questions being explored at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Helen L. Porter and James T. Dyke Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC), which is doing research aimed at not just better understanding brain-behavior coding, but using that knowledge to develop more effective treatments for addictions and other forms of mental illness.
“I like both the complexity and excitement of using brain imaging,” said Clint Kilts, PhD, director of the BIRC. “The primary goal is to understand the relationship between the brain and human behavior. How do different experiences reorganize the brain to facilitate adaptive or maladaptive outcomes? Every time the brain is stimulated by something like learning a second language or how to juggle, the brain is remolded in an active, ongoing process.” Unfortunately the relationship is also true for adverse experiences such as trauma exposures.
One major tool for exploring such relationships is a $3-million, 6,000-pound 3 Tesla MRI scanner that is able to produce a magnetic field 60,000 times stronger than the Earth’s.
Kilts said the 3 Tesla scanner is an important tool in their work studying the functional organization of the human brain.
“One current $1.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is looking at how risk factors change the brain to increase susceptibility for drug addiction, specifically at how earlier life trauma predisposes women to addiction,” Kilts said. “We have spent a lot of time studying the brain to understand the causes of the chronically relapsing nature of addiction. Relapse is so common. There is growing understanding of how the brain codes relapse. Circuits of the brain are activated when the brain experiences stress or another stimulus for relapse such as encountering a reminder of past drug use, or if the subject uses a drug of abuse. New approaches to treatment and prevention demand an understanding of how the brain biologically codes relapse.”
The purpose of the NIDA research is to develop prevention and invention strategies for at-risk adolescents.
“There is a high bar set on work like this being translational,” Kilts said. “It is not enough to do the science, but it should deliver outcomes that obviously lead to the betterment of the patient.”
A risk factor that predisposes girls aged 12 to 16 to drug abuse is physical or sexual assault.
“Until recently, we had no idea of how the brain responds to trauma and how that effect leads to greater risk for a drug use disorder,” Kilts said. “And we have been fascinated with why certain individuals develop psychiatric disorders, not just addiction. We know a common risk factor for drug use, depression, anxiety disorder and other mental illnesses is experiencing assault or trauma. Trauma is so prevalent in our society and worldwide. It is such a dominant risk factor, more important than genetic risk factors, for example. We are very much involved in working to learn more about the brain consequences of the enormous risk factor of trauma and how that affects post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and drug use.”
To be translational, the research must inform the design of better modes of treatment.
The same types of treatment for mental health have been used for decades, but they don’t work in everyone and some people have only partial responses.
“We have been slow to develop better ones, largely because our understanding of what brain changes code the best individual treatment outcomes remains limited,” Kilts said. “We need to develop better therapies predicated on understanding how the present therapies work. A related challenge is taking a clinic-delivered therapy and reproducing it in a MRI to capture the effects of therapy.”
Another prong of the research involves how the brain codes our differing cognitive abilities. If there was better understanding of why some people have poor memory recall and others have excellent recall, it could lead to treatment to help people improve their cognitive abilities.
“We are interested in studying something few people have studied in the past,” Kilts said. “We are studying human variation. Our science has the ability to provide personal descriptions of how the brain varies to produce differing cognitive abilities. We want to align the brain imaging center with the personalized medicine initiative.”
An important part of the work is education and training.
“This is a very complex technology, and applications are complex,” Kilts said. “While my generation has done a lot in developing this and related technology, the next generation is going to be more impacting. We have an obligation to train the next-gen imaging scientists. We are actively involved in training the scientists of tomorrow who want careers focused on the scientific and technological challenges of defining the neurobiology of human behavior and all of its variation. We are engaging the BIRC with enthusiasm and training this generation across many ages and disciplines. We have a busy, active and successful training program. When we want to impress visitors to our center, we let the young trainees do the talking, and it makes the day.”