Addiction research – Who are we studying?

I teach a class on the psychology of addiction (Psych 477 at California State University in Long Beach) and as I have been preparing the lectures something has become very clear to me – textbooks patently gloss over important details about the addiction research they cite. One of the most obvious gaps I’ve noticed this semester concerns the population of research subjects most addiction research is conducted on. An example will clarify:

A student group in my class had to read a study assessing the residual effects of methamphetamine on mood and sleep. They were amazed that no changes in mood were observed and that participants slept a full 6-8 hours the night after being administered meth! Would you have been surprised with these results given that we all have been told that crystal meth improves mood and causes insomnia?

Would it matter at all if I told you that the participants in the study were current meth abusers who use an average of 4 times every week?

For anyone not aware of the tainted history of health research in the U.S. (I’m including psychological research in this group), go ahead and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment (video here). There are other examples including Stanley Milgram‘s obedience studies, and more but as exciting as the discussion of these studies is, it’s time to get back to my main point.

It is mostly due to the ethically-questionable, psychologically damaging, research above that research institutions are now required to vet proposed research studies using Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to assure that human participants in studies are consenting to participate of their own free will, are not coerced, and are not suffering undue damage. This is also true of addiction research. Rarely does the public consider this fact however when they are being reported on research relevant to addiction. I know this because the kids in my class never gave it a second thought.

When reading about addiction research, think about the subjects participating in itNearly all addiction research, especially studies utilizing “hard” drugs like cocaine, meth, opiates, etc., are required to make use of a very limited part of society – drug using individuals with a history of use of the specific drug of interest who are specifically not interested in treatment. Individuals who have never tried the drug or who want to be treated for drug abuse or dependence (addiction) are excluded due to ethical concerns. In most studies, participants can not qualify if they are addicted to drugs other than those being studies (except smoking, for which exceptions are usually made since we’d be able left with no participants otherwise) or have any associated mental health disorders, which are very common among addicted individuals. I would further assert that for at least a substantial portion of these research participants, the term “addicts” may not be appropriate since many addicts would not willingly give up using their favorite substance for a week or two to be replaces with a hospital bed and an experimenter controlled dose of drug or placebo. Taken together, our research subjects are pretty obviously not representative of all drug users, or all addicts, or all anything else. They make up a very specific group – less than perfect, but what we have to work with.

In some studies that attempt to make a direct comparison between controls (or drug naive participants) and drug users, this is likely less of an issue. This can happen when researchers try to examine brain structure differences, or performance on a specific psychological or physical test. In such cases researchers can at least statistically identify contributions of length of use, method of use, and other relevant data on differences between people who use and those that don’t. There are probably still some serious differences between “true” addicts, recreational users, and semi-chronic users that would be important to understand here, but we can’t so we don’t. But when it comes to assessing mood effects, or indeed any of a number of subjective effects of drugs, drug cravings, and withdrawal, this limitation in the population to be studied is something that often needs to be made explicitly clear to most public consumers of research. Since we can’t assess changes in mood, absorption rate, anxiety, or any other such measure (some exceptions for very low doses in very specific circumstances) among people who are new to the drug, we end up assessing them among people with a lot of experience, but not enough of a problem to want addiction treatment. Again, this should be considered a pretty specific type of drug user in my opinion.

There are other types of studies – those conducted with abstinent ex-users or addiction treatment intervention studies utilizing addicts who want, or who reported to, treatment on their own or in response to advertisements. While these studies make use of populations that can be considered at least closer to the individuals they are specifically aimed at – assessing the return of  cognitive function after short or long term abstinence or testing a new intervention on those who want treatment – they still bring on limitations that need to be specifically considered.

An important point – most researchers recognize these issues and make them explicitly part of their research publications, in a specific section called “Limitations” but what seems troubling is that the public doesn’t have any awareness of these issues. So when someone tells you that “they just found out meth doesn’t actually make people lose sleep,” take a second to ask “for who?”

Rubber-band addiction recovery – No shame

There’s a specific issue that keeps coming up with nearly every addiction client I work with who is in early recovery. Regardless of whether they’re trying to stop unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sex or gambling behavior, or anything else, this issue keeps returning. It doesn’t even seem to matter if this is their first attempt at addiction recovery or if they’ve already been here many times before.

The issue: Shame about a desire to return to old behaviors and stopping their recovery.

At the Matrix Institute on Addiction where I see some clients, they call this “The Wall” suggesting that it usually comes right after a relatively easy period of recovery in which clients are self-assured and confident that they’ve got their addiction beat. “The Wall” is supposed to be marked by anhedonia, depression, severe cravings, irritability, and more fun stuff like that. After the wall is the promised land of long-term recovery. By identifying the specific stages of recovery addicts are supposed to gain more understanding of their process and experience less shame. I love the Matrix method, but I see things a little differently.  The way I see it, “The Wall” is far from a single point in time, but is instead part of a larger pattern I like to call Rubber-band Recovery.

Rubber-band Recovery in Addiction

Addiction recovery is similar to letting go of a stretched rubber bandI’m sure everyone reading this has at some point played with a rubber band, stretching it and letting it snap back to its original state or pulling it between two fingers and playing it like a string (another name for this approach could be String Recovery, but that might get confused with theoretical physics and we don’t want that). When pulling the rubber-band one way, its internal structure pulls back, trying to get back to its natural state. The body can be thought to do the same when placed under chronic alcohol and drug use in addiction – it has a slew of internal processes that work hard to keep the body in its natural state, at homeostasis. Naturally, due to the pharmacological mechanisms of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and many other drugs, these systems usually fail at setting everything back to normal especially during the use itself, which is why we get high. However, their work in a body that consumes drugs on a regular basis is obvious – reductions in the production of specific chemicals (like relevant neurotransmitters), changes in the structure of the brain itself (like producing less receptors or even removing some from the brain’s cells), and production of chemicals that combat the drugs’ actions.

All in all, the body and brain of a long-time, chronic, heavy user of alcohol and drugs are different from the body and brain they started with in important ways that specifically relate to their alcohol and drug use. They are like the stretched rubber band, similar but obviously not the same as it was in its relaxed state.

Individuals in early recovery from addiction essentially experience what happens when that taut, stretched, rubber band is let loose. Hurrying up to get back to its natural state, to homeostasis, it releases all that pent up energy and rushes through its original state, overcompensating and stretching a bit in the other direction. For the addict in early recovery, this is the process of withdrawal. As we’ve spoken about numerous times before when discussing withdrawal, a brain that has reduced its own production of dopamine because of large amounts of methamphetamine that flood its dopamine reserves will still be left with very low dopamine when the crystal meth stops coming in. Low dopamine will bring about many effects that look exactly like the opposite of a methamphetamine high – a large appetite, low energy, and reduced movement and motivation. For heroin addicts, the drug that’s caused them to feel no pain and become constipated will cause their bodies severe pain, diarrhea, and trembling when it’s removed from the equation. Some withdrawal is actually life threatening due to the extreme changes in body chemistry and structure that happen after long term use. In addition to all of the direct effects of the drugs and alcohol, those internal processes that have been working hard to counteract the effects of the drugs (they’re called “opponent processes” by some addiction researcher like Dr. Christopher Evans from UCLA) are still turned up to 10 and are going to take a little time to get back to their original state as well. All in all, that leaves addicts feeling pretty crappy to say the least during withdrawal, the worst part of early recovery from addiction.

But like that good old rubber-band addiction recovery than quickly turns around. Having overcome the worst part of withdrawal, addicts in early recovery often experience joy, confidence, energy, and clarity they probably haven’t felt in a long time. That along with the environmental influence of loved ones who are extremely happy to see an addict quit (especially the first time around) give those in very early recovery a feeling of great well being and happiness, like a nice pink-cloud they get to ride on for a bit. Remember, the rubber band is moving back in the direction it came from during active addiction and it’s likely that brain processes are doing a little overcompensating the other way now too, turning down those opponent processes and flooding the brain with the chemicals it’s been missing.

But alas, this little turn doesn’t last too long and back we go into the darker place of negativity, low energy, anhedonia, and more. But instead of calling this stage “The Wall,” I understand it as one of the inevitable turns in what is sure to be a back and forth, seesaw like trip of recovery ups and downs. Periods of confidence in our ability to overcome our demons are followed by others that make us feel week and irritable. The good news is that just like with a rubber-band, each successive cycle on this seesaw gets a little less intense, which means that confidence, elation, depression, and anger turn into comfort, contentment, and ease – our new homeostasis. After a ride like that most addicts really need a little rest and when we reach this stage (no matter what it looks like specifically for each person), long-term recovery feels like the norm instead of an effort. This is the real end goal of recovery – a state of being that feels normal and that doesn’t involve unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sexual acting out, or gambling.

At the end of the rubber-band game we get back to just a good old unstretched rubber-band, and it feels good. In the process, it makes little sense to feel guilty, or ashamed, at all the intermediate stages. They’re part of the game of recovery and they’re essentially impossible to avoid completely. Intense cravings come during specific parts because of internal, biological, and external, environmental influences. Being ashamed of that would be essentially the same as being ashamed of extreme hunger when you haven’t eaten in 5 hours and see a commercial for your favorite food – silly and useless. I can guarantee that the rubber band doesn’t feel ashamed about they way it behaves when snapping back…

Biology versus Choice: Is a simple explanation of addiction enough?

At the recent Addictions conference, held in D.C. and sponsored by Elsevier, a well known academic publishing house, I got myself into one of those long debates with a fellow addiction researcher. The question we were debating was whether addiction is primarily biological or if it is mostly a matter of personal choice. We ran through research evidence, the notion of stigma, and more, making us late for the afternoon session of talks – but it was worth it.

My take on it was that one can’t separate biology from choice, a point I have made over and over (see my choice Vs. control talk), and that ignoring the biology of addiction is therefore impossible. My opponent across the stage (or lunch table as it were) was Christopher Russell, a graduate student at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom who is a bigger believer in the choice view of addiction, along with people like Dr. Bruce Alexander of Rat Park fame and Dr. Gene Heyman who wrote “Addiction is a disorder of choice.”

I like good debates and at as far as I understand it Christopher and I ended-up agreeing that as usual neither biology, nor choice, do a good enough job of explaining a complex disorder like substance abuse and addiction. I’ve been making that point for a while, so I’m pretty comfortable with the final conclusion – Biology, environment, and choice (cravings) all factor into addiction as I understand it. Without understanding the machinery and how genetics and behavior affect it, I think the rest of the discussion is moot, but it is pretty much as pointless without addressing environmental influences and the role of choice.

I liked debating with Christopher so much that we’re going to be bringing him on a writer on A3. He’ll help us keep on top of the most recent addiction research and news while bringing in another voice on the topic that I think will help move our discussion forward. So please help me welcome Christoper Russell from the U.K., and look ahead for his contribution as well as a likely ongoing debate about the importance of biology versus personal choice.