Part of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world's largest science competition for high school students, the Addiction Science Award is given by NIDA to three exemplary projects on the topic of addiction science.
What is the Addiction Science Fair Award?
Every May, close to 1,500 students from more than 50 countries compete in the world's largest science competition for high school students–the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Three projects are selected by NIDA to receive awards for exemplary work in Addiction Science, an honor that began in 2008 (2008 award winners). First place winner receives $2500, second place winner receives $1500 and third place winner receives $1000. NIDA announces the Addiction Science winners at the Special Awards ceremony at the Fair, and we invite them to visit us at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2008, the awards were co-sponsored by NIDA's education partner Scholastic, the global children's publishing, education and media company.
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), is the world's largest international pre-college science competition, and annually provides a forum for more than 1,500 high school students to showcase their independent research. The ISEF is the premiere science competition in the world exclusively for students in grades 9-12. Each year, the winners of local and school-sponsored science fairs compete in regional and state fairs and the winners attend the Intel ISEF. The non profit organization Society for Science & the Public partners with Intel - along with dozens of other corporate, academic, government and science-focused sponsors - who provide support and awards for the Intel ISEF each year. While there are medical and behavioral science awards given by various public and private agencies, this is the first series of awards given exclusively for projects that advance addiction science.
What is Addiction Science?
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that affects brain function and behavior. It is also a treatable disease. The science of addiction is diverse, and includes any research that contributes to our understanding of addiction and its health consequences. This ranges from understanding who abuses drugs and why to basic biology (including genetics) to brain structure and function (how the brain works) to behavior (that can lead to drug abuse or addiction) to prevention and treatment (behavioral therapy and medications) to health services research (how to get the best treatments to those who need it). Since prevention of drug abuse and treatment of drug addiction are NIDA's primary goals, any research that can help us achieve them is of interest. Projects that focus on these scientific questions are considered for the Addiction Science Award.
What is Drug Addiction?
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing yet treatable brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain--they change its structure and how it functions.
How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?
The brain is made up of many parts that all work together as a team. Different parts of the brain are responsible for coordinating and performing specific functions. Drugs can alter important brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions and can drive the compulsive drug abuse that marks addiction.
Drugs are chemicals that work in the brain by interfering with the way nerve cells normally communicate. All drugs of abuse target the brain's reward system by flooding the circuit with the chemical dopamine (see figure). When some drugs of abuse are taken, they can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards like eating and sex do. The excess dopamine in this system produces the "high" that drugs can cause and teaches people to repeat the behavior, dwarfing the effects produced by naturally rewarding behaviors. The effect of such a powerful reward strongly motivates people to take drugs again and again. However, just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain adjusts to the presence of the excess dopamine so that without the drug the ability to experience any pleasure is reduced. Now, they need to take drugs just to bring their dopamine function back up to normal. And, they must take larger amounts of the drug than they first did to create the dopamine high. But this is only the beginning of how drugs affect the brain. Drugs also affect memory systems triggering drug craving when a drug abuser is exposed to environmental reminders of previous drug experiences and parts of the brain that allow people to control their behavior. Together these effects lead to addiction, driving an abuser to seek out and take drugs despite its harmful consequences.
Who Becomes Addicted?
No single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs (see figure). The overall risk for addiction is impacted by the biological makeup of the individual - it can even be influenced by gender or ethnicity, his or her developmental stage, and the surrounding social environment (e.g., conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood). Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person's vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of environment on gene expression and function. Adolescents and individuals with mental disorders are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population.
Does Treatment Work?
Addiction is a treatable disease. Discoveries in the science of addiction have led to advances in drug abuse treatment that help people stop abusing drugs and resume their productive lives. Combining treatment medications (where available) with behavioral therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients. And, research is beginning to show that recovery of brain function may be possible with prolonged abstinence (see figure). Although many people who are addicted to drugs relapse after treatment, that doesn't mean that the treatment has failed. Similar to treatment for other chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension, addiction treatment involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors that in this case stem from changes in the brain. For the addicted patient, lapses back to drug abuse indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.
More information on the basics of addiction science can be found in the publication Drugs, Brains, and Behavior - The Science of Addiction.