Hooked on Pills? There’s a Pill for That…

Neuroscience

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image: Adam from UK (Wikimedia Commons)

Americans are abusing prescription painkillers at an alarming rate.

In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid analgesics – that’s enough for every adult in the U.S. to have their own bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Opioid analgesics are a class of drug that includes Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin; it’s quite likely that you or a family member has been prescribed one of these after having surgery.

In addition to providing pain relief, opioid analgesics also activate the brain’s reward system, making it easy to become addicted. Given their similar mechanism of action, prescription opioid use can lead to heroin use. After all, heroin has become significantly less expensive and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription.

While the current heroin boom is getting a lot of press, prescription opiate addiction gets little attention even though it leads to more overdose deaths per year than heroin and cocaine combined.

But can you fix an addiction to pills…with a pill?

NFL Players Sue over Painkillers—Because They’re Addicted

Neuroscience
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Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga (Flickr)

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

America loves football. Brutal, high-flying, smash-mouth football.

The players seem like gladiators from another era. Chiseled out of stone, they feel no pain as they run, jump, and catch with a grace that appears super-human.

The reality is, however, that they do feel pain—and often are playing injured. As news of the most recent lawsuit against the National Football League unfolds,  the realities of America’s favorite sport are slowly being revealed–retired players are claiming that the NFL got them addicted to painkillers.

There are several legal factors to consider in such a claim: did the NFL act recklessly, negligently, or maliciously? Did they create a culture that encouraged drug abuse? Were players informed of side effects and drug interactions?

Most of the drugs mentioned in this case (Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin) are prescription opioids, which have a long history of abuse and addiction. These drugs act on opioid receptors of the central nervous system relieving pain and causing feelings of euphoria.

While the legalities of this particular claim will likely be argued for a long time, the question remains: why are prescription opioids used so often for pain relief, and why are they so addictive?

Optogenetics and the Future of Brain Mapping

Neuroscience

By: Andrew Huhn, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

17optic-articleLargeOptogenetics is one of the most significant advances in neuroscience in the last decade. The very concept of optogenetics appears to come straight from a science fiction novel: we can control the brain with a laser! Okay, so that’s a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.

Optogenetics allows scientists to selectively excite or inhibit discrete areas of an animal brain using a beam of light. Moreover, scientists can control a single type of neuron within that region, providing fine-tuned control that was unachievable with earlier methods. But how exactly is this accomplished? And what implications does this have on biomedical research?