Brain Awareness Week begins March 12th, and among many nationwide activities, NIH scientists will be teaching young people about the amazing human brain at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD. While we think of Brain Awareness Week as an educational opportunity for children, it is a good time to remind us all about recent advances in neuroscience, and how brain research is helping us understand, prevent, and treat drug abuse and addiction.
As a neuroscientist, what excites me about studying the brain is that it helps us understand what makes us uniquely human and what drives our behaviors. In recent years, we have started to understand the changes in the brain associated with repeated drug use that ultimately lead to the loss of self-control and the compulsive intake that characterizes addiction. By studying drugs of abuse or patients who have unfortunately become addicted, we are gaining insight into the basic neurological functions that underlie the human experience.
Last year at NIDA’s Frontiers in Addiction Research Mini Convention at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, we interviewed NIDA scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field. They discussed their own motivations and inspirations for pursuing their research and some of the major new developments pushing the advancement of brain science in recent years.
One of these advances is the sequencing of the human genome. We are now able to look at the genetic basis of addiction as well as identify new molecular targets that can be used in developing medications to treat substance abuse. There are also major advances in neuroimaging—new tools that allow us not only to watch how the living brain works as an integrated whole but also to examine processes occurring at the cellular and even molecular level. And there is exciting new work being done in epigenetics: the study of how genetics and environment intersect to produce behaviors. Animal research is revealing how exposure to abused drugs can effect molecular changes that can be inherited by the first and second generation offspring. This type of work may shed light on the trans-generational inheritance of disease vulnerabilities, specifically on the role played by experiential factors.
Those interviews—which make the science come to life—are now posted on NIDA’s Web site. I welcome you to view them and learn more about how NIDA grantees, particularly some of our younger scientists, view the future of neuroscience and the role it will play in unraveling the mysteries of addiction. We hope that some of the children participating in the 2012 Brain Awareness Week activities will one day be part of this exciting, ongoing pursuit of knowledge.
This page was last updated March 2012