Baltimore, Md. — Substance abuse can have devastating consequences for individuals, families, and society. Yet despite years of research on chemical addiction, a central question remains: why do some people abuse drugs and alcohol and others do not? Lynn Oswald, PhD, RN, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, has received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study brain mechanisms that may play a critical role in these behaviors.
“We know from epidemiological research that a person's risk for substance abuse may be influenced by inherited characteristics,” says Oswald. “For example, the incidence of alcohol abuse tends to be higher in individuals with a family history of alcoholism than in those without that history. Although it is not clear why, people with impulsive personality traits are also more likely to use drugs and have higher rates of substance abuse than the general population. Similarly, there is evidence that prolonged or severe stress may lead some people to resort to alcohol or drugs.”
Groundbreaking discoveries in neuroscience over the past decade have led to growing awareness that, like other organs in our body, brain function can be modified by internal and external events. “Variations in brain function may help to explain differences in risk for a number of psychiatric disorders, says Oswald. “However, our understanding of these processes is still limited and human studies are lacking.”
Along with her investigative team, which includes collaborators from the School of Nursing, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Oswald will be examining whether factors such as chronic stress and impulsivity affect brain dopamine systems in ways that could increase a person's risk for drug abuse. The study will use psychological and behavioral assessments, as well as sophisticated brain imaging, to answer these questions.
According to Oswald, better understanding of such mechanisms is important for the development of new prevention and treatment strategies for substance abuse and possibly other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome, which may also involve brain dopamine.
The University of Maryland School of Nursing, founded in 1889, is one of the oldest and largest nursing schools, and is ranked seventh nationally. Enrolling more than 1,600 students in its baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral programs, the School develops leaders who shape the profession of nursing and impact the health care environment.