Basic Research Translates To Addiction Treatment

This is the first in a series on translational research at various NIH institutes.

Basic research findings in behavior related to addiction are moving out of the research laboratory and into clinical application, thanks to a new program at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Applying recent scientific advances in understanding the brain, behavior and the roots of addiction, the institute’s Translational Research Branch (TRB) is attempting to close the gap between basic behavioral research and its application in clinical care. Now in its third year, the branch has begun to sponsor studies that translate basic neurobiological and behavioral research into practical treatments for nicotine and tobacco addiction.

The critical need for more efficacious treatments for this type of addiction is a driving force behind the translational research efforts at NIDA. Although behavioral interventions and medications are currently used to treat nicotine addiction, an estimated 60 million Americans remain addicted, said David Shurtleff, Acting Director of NIDA’s division of neuroscience and behavioral research (DNBR). DNBR, one of four divisions at NIDA, houses the translational research branch, which is headed by William Corrigall.

The TRB is expected to help the institute meet its goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and addiction and the concomitant behavioral, health and social consequences. NIDA’s five-year plan, issued in late 2001, includes translating basic research into new treatments as one of its three main priorities.

“We’re really trying to send a message that NIDA is interested in translational research,” Shurtleff said. “The branch focuses on areas where we have enough information and momentum.”

Researchers already know that behavior is a powerful factor in treating nicotine addiction. However, Shurtleff said, researchers need to delve more into understanding the attitudes and behaviors underlying smokers’ inability to quit even with medical treatment.

Bringing together a varied group of researchers allows NIDA to use a range of approaches to target the problem, Shurtleff noted. “That kind of thing speaks to the emerging approach in science,” he added. “People address problems with a range of abilities.”

NIDA released a Request for Applications (RFA) last December seeking researchers from diverse disciplines to develop new treatment approaches by building on existing knowledge of the biological substrates and behavioral mechanisms of nicotine and tobacco addiction. The institute is expected to commit approximately $2 million this year to fund seven to 10 grants that will develop and test pharmacological interventions, behavioral approaches and treatments applicable to special populations, such as women or smokers with mental illness.

Shurtleff said the RFA also represents his division’s work in developing initiatives that reaching out to other divisions and branches within the institute, specifically behavioral scientists. The proposed research applies to the mission of the Behavioral Treatment Development Branch (BTDB), which is part of NIDA’s division of treatment research and development.

Translational research studies such as those that will be funded out of the RFA will bridge the gap between the TRB’s basic research expertise and the clinical knowledge of the BTDB, according to BTDB Chief Lisa Simon Onken. Both divisions are evaluating applications for the grants.

An excellent example of translational research being funded by NIDA is that of APS member Julie Stout, at Indiana University. Her project, entitled “Cognitive Modeling of Risky Decisions in Substance Users,” attempts to take mathematical models (previously developed and tested in cognitive psychology) and apply them to laboratory gambling tasks currently being used to study decision-making in drug abusers. “I like the emphasis on [Translational research].” she said recently. “It gives us a chance to put together more novel approaches and get them funded.”

“As a neuroscientist, I’m interested in complex behaviors,” said Stout. Her program of research on drug abuse integrates clinical, cognitive, and neuroscience research in an attempt to decipher the decision-making processes in drug abusers. Computational models can be applied to reveal the interplay of psychological processes in the decision making process of drug abusers. In addition, these psychological processes appear to vary with decision task characteristics, as well as with individual differences. “You can fit these models to individual decision making behavior.”

Long before the translational branch was created, the BTDB made behavioral translational research a major focus of its work. The solid relationship her branch has developed with the translational research branch has aided Onken and her colleagues in identifying basic research that may be used for further behavioral studies by the treatment division.

“The translational research branch may be doing work that might be the BTSB’s next step,” Onken explained. “Our knowledge and appreciation of basic research is enriched by the partnership,” she said. Stout expressed a similar sentiment.

“Translational research seems very natural for psychologists,” she remarked. “It’s a natural thing to be doing this day and age, NIDA is doing a great job with it. They’re seeking research out, and being very active about it.”

Despite the number of initiatives in translational research and behavioral treatment research, Onken belives NIDA is challenged though by the small number of researchers undertaking translational research. “It’s much more difficult to do translational research than other types,” she said. “You have to have experience in two different areas.” Not surprisingly, basic behavioral researchers often lack clinical training and skills, and many clinicians lack extensive research training and acumen.

Translational research studies in behavior typically integrate specialities such as neuroscience, emotion, cognition and social processes. This kind of enterprise requires researchers with broad perspectives and skills who are willing to collaborate across disciplinary, departmental and even institutional boundaries. Given the traditional structure of academic departments, these collaborations are difficult and often not encouraged.

To encourage collaborations for translational research studies, Onken said her branch has sponsored workshops to pair basic researchers with clinical researchers interested in possible ways to translate the data into potential treatments. The branch plans to sponsor more workshops this year to foster more partnerships for grants.

Onken believes those grants will lead to instances where the translational branch can be most helpful to her branch. “Say we’re funding a study and we tell them what we’re finding and ask them if it will have clinical relevance,” she explained. “Having them on the other side of the fence will potentially help us.”
Stout believes that working on translational research has been a beenefit in more ways than one. “It’s really quite fun to be involved with people from different areas of expertise,” Stout said, going on to remark that each field involved in the project is gaining valuable knowledge that can be used for further research in its respective subject area.

Shurtleff believes TRB’s work also benefits from the “synergistic approach” of other NIH institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health, both of which have contributed to the large body of knowledge on nicotine addiction. Common interests are bringing these institutes together to solve critical research questions.

Read about the translational efforts of other NIH institutes in the upcoming issues of the Observer.

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