Skip to main content

Local scientists discover new link between substance abuse and addiction


It’s no secret that the United States is in the midst of a debilitating opioid misuse crisis with no clear end in sight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42 thousand lives were claimed as a result of opioid use in 2016 alone with 40 percent of these deaths involving at least one prescribed opioid.

Scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine are working to change the trajectory of the epidemic.

Under the direction of Brady Atwood, PhD, researchers have identified a link between opioid receptors and a recently identified brain circuit that may produce addictive behaviors. Opioid receptors are proteins that control one’s responses to opioid use. They also serve as regulators of how different parts of the brain communicate or “talk” to one another.

“What we have found is that just one single exposure to a prescription opioid can produce changes in the brain that last for days,” Atwood explained.

In addition to the interference of normal communication within the brain that results from opioid use, their newest study shows that alcohol consumption has a very similar impact on the way opioid receptors operate.

“Opioid and alcohol exposure prevents these receptors from controlling communication between two parts of the brain – one of which controls the brain’s perception of the body, and the other controls habitual behaviors,” said Atwood. “What was especially fascinating was that these effects were very specific to the connection between these two parts of the brain. As we start to understand how these two parts of the brain communicate with each other and the effect that opioids and alcohol have on this communication, we can begin to identify new targets for treatment.”

While previous research has identified the connection between these two parts of the brain, Atwood and his team are the first to identify a specific function of this connection and the definitive understanding that these two parts of the brain do communicate.

“The goal is to eventually predict the changes in the brain caused by drug and alcohol use, and to be able to treat or undo those changes before the individual establishes an addiction or even to reverse addiction itself.”

The full findings from this study can be found in Nature Communications.