What’s a dentist doing at the helm of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA)? The short answer is: collaboration, translation, and prevention.
Asked to lead NIDA after the departure of APS Fellow and Charter Member Alan Leshner, Glen Hanson holds a PhD in addition to his DDS, and is recognized as an expert on psychostimulants. He is particularly known for his work on the neurotoxic properties of ecstasy (MDMA) and amphetamines, as well as the role of brain peptides in psychiatric and neurological functions.
Hanson came to NIDA in September 2000 as the director of NIDA’s division of neuroscience and behavioral research. Hanson is advisory director of the University of Utah’s addiction research and education center, which he founded in 1999, plus he is a professor in the University of Utah’s department of pharmacology and toxicology. He was a NIDA-supported investigator for more than 20 years.
In his tenure at the top at NIDA, Hanson is determined not to let the word “acting” in his title deter him from giving NIDA direction and priorities. The three priorities that he would like to see grow in his time at NIDA are collaboration with other institutes, translational research, and drug prevention research.
Toward these goals, one of Hanson’s top priorities has been to meet with heads of other agencies whose work parallels his institute’s mission, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). (Ironically, NIMH and NIAAA are also led by acting directors (see the February 2002 and March 2002 issues of the Observer) as is NINDS and several other NIH institutes.)
Hanson cited collaboration with NIAAA as an example of the need for these meetings. “It doesn’t make sense not to pay attention to the fact that those with substance abuse problems also abuse alcohol,” he said in a recent interview. “Why is there a high co-morbidity, a high co-use?” He does not see the collaboration ending, even when permanent directors assume their positions at these institutes. Hanson also encourages NIDA’s collaboration with NCI on the issue of smoking and addiction to tobacco. “We’re meeting on a regular basis … once this is in place, the permanent directors will see the value in having it continue.”
Along the same lines, Hanson would like to see continue a recent trend towards trans-disciplinary research. “When you get investigators to work together, and be broad, you can a look at a question from multiple perspectives.”
The institutes Hanson is meeting with also share a commitment to behavioral sciences. One example of NIDA’s work in the field is improving behavioral therapies in a community setting. Although theories exist about why behavioral therapies work, more systematic studies are needed to identify the key components and mechanisms of behavioral therapies so that these can be retained in the process of adapting them for community settings.1 “We want to identify behavioral treatments that work in specific settings,” Hanson pointed out. “How can we translate this strategy into a community setting? What works and why- and where?” But despite all the advances in treating addiction, the most important treatment for drug abuse may be to prevent potential users from ever beginning. “Behavior plays a major role in all aspects of prevention.” Hanson thinks that basic research is another key. “How do basic strategies improve prevention?”
A very popular subject through all of NIH right now, as well as NIDA specifically, is improving research training and loan repayment opportunities, in order to attract clinical investigators. “We’re always excited about attracting clinical researchers,” Hanson explained. “Loans can be repaid up to $35,000 a year during the time [the student] is engaged in research. This will attract more clinicians to engage in research careers.”
Hanson hopes to oversee progress by NIDA in other areas beyond his three priorities. One area is the use of imaging technology in behavioral studies. “We can couple behavioral strategies with functional MRIs – it tells us what part of the brain is involved in behavioral functions, and the consequences of decision-making,” Hanson explained. “Imaging allows us to put the pieces together, to find neurosystems associated with behavior.” A recent Request for Applications (RFA), “Neuroimaging Technology Development to Assess Brain and Behavior in Pediatric Populations,” has the potential to explicate the neurobiological bases of childhood communication disorders and expand our understanding of certain brain-behavior relationships.2
With his goals clearly defined and his energy level high, Glen Hanson may be an “acting director,” but he sure isn’t acting like it.