As our communities, healthcare systems, and government agencies join in the effort to reverse the epidemic of opioid overdoses and solve the opioid crisis, it is not enough to focus all our resources on treating people who are already addicted to opioids. Keeping people who do not have an opioid use disorder from becoming addicted is an equally important task. Addressing overprescribing of pain medications through improved pain management and prescription monitoring has been one important prevention approach; and as illicit opioids like heroin and imported fentanyl become more prevalent, reducing the supply of those substances through law enforcement efforts is also crucial. But reducing the demand for opioids by addressing the reasons people turn to them and become addicted in the first place is just as vital and fundamental to ensuring that a new drug epidemic does not follow once the opioid crisis is contained.
Research on preventing drug use by addressing vulnerability factors that increase the risk for substance use disorders is an important component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM) Initiative. Specifically, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study being partially funded by HEAL will examine how the human brain develops in the transition from infancy into early adolescence. Evaluating the effects of fetal drug exposures, adverse environments, genetics, mental illness will provide knowledge to help us understand how these risk factors operate in conferring vulnerability for substance use disorders.
Abundant research by NIDA-funded investigators over the past few decades has shown that positively altering a child’s life trajectory by reducing various risk factors, strengthening protective factors, and increasing access to resources can reduce or delay later drug use as well as minimize other adverse outcomes like criminality or other mental illness. Risk factors addressed by early childhood interventions can include poor self-regulation, aggression, or insecure attachment to parents. Those addressed in family and school prevention interventions at all ages through the teen years include lack of parental supervision, exposure to drugs at home or at school, and stresses from poverty, neglect, or abuse.
Prevention programs can take many forms, but all in one way or another address these risk factors and/or bolster factors like self-control, peer relationships, or other age-appropriate skills. These forms of resilience may make all the difference in the young person’s life when faced with the opportunities and temptations to begin smoking, drinking, or using drugs when they are adolescents, despite whatever adversity they may have experienced when younger. Effective prevention can even begin as early as the prenatal period: For example, an intervention in which trained nurses visit and provide guidance to first-time mothers during their pregnancy and in the first two years of their child’s life was shown to be effective at improving various cognitive and behavioral outcomes into adolescence, including reduced substance use and involvement with the juvenile justice system.
The stresses of impoverished environments negatively impact brain development, but a striking finding from prevention research is that interventions can protect against or reverse some of these neurobiological impacts. For example, a family-focused intervention with poor families in rural Georgia protected against poverty-associated neurobiological changes to brain areas involved in learning and stress reactivity. And maltreated children in foster care who received a prevention intervention for preschoolers were better able to regulate stress, as measured by cortisol levels.
Because risk factors for drug use are common to other behavioral problems, most prevention interventions do not focus solely on preventing drug use or on preventing a single type of drug use. A wide range of problems can be addressed or averted by addressing core risk or protective factors. A few programs, however, such as a middle-school intervention called PROSPER, have shown specific benefits at preventing nonmedical use of prescription drugs.
An important research priority is finding out how to widen the adoption and effective implementation of evidence-supported prevention programs. The menu of such interventions is diverse, but few of the options are widely used. Part of the problem is that high-quality intervention programs are costly, and communities may be reluctant to invest the needed resources when the payoff may be years or more in the future. However, studies have strikingly shown that many programs more than pay for themselves. Like other investments—saving for retirement, for instance—primary prevention of substance use and addiction requires long-term thinking and balancing the short-term costs in money and time against the long-term benefits of a healthier society down the road.
The HEAL initiative will also prioritize research on developing interventions targeted towards the transition from late adolescence into adulthood, the age where there is the largest increase in initiating opioid use. NIDA will be funding research to create an evidence base for new strategies and interventions to prevent opioid initiation and opioid use disorder (OUD) in older adolescents and young adults in healthcare, justice, and other settings.
In a new Commentary, Targeting Youth to Prevent Later Substance Use Disorder: An Underutilized Response to the US Opioid Crisis, in the American Journal of Public Health, colleagues at NIDA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) highlight the importance of research on primary prevention for helping to address the opioid crisis. Such research will provide us not only with scientific solutions to address the current opioid crisis but will provide us with the knowledge and tools to protect us from future drug crises.