AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Carlton Erickson, a neuropharmacologist in The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, spent almost 30 years studying how drugs and alcohol affect the human brain before he had a career-changing epiphany.
He realized that despite all the scientific discoveries, treatment of alcoholics and alcohol abusers had not changed in years. The reason — the discoveries weren’t making their way to the people who provide detoxification and recovery services.
“Breakthroughs are being made almost daily that help us better understand alcoholism,” Erickson said. “These discoveries can help us with treatment and prevention.”
Unfortunately, Erickson discovered, professionals who work with alcoholics have access to information that is often 10 years old.
The revelation caused Erickson to change direction and devote himself to bringing news of research findings to alcohol and drug abuse counselors, social workers, criminal justice workers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, family members and clergy.
He wrote a proposal for an education grant to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and it was approved. Now in the sixth year of funding, the grant enables Erickson and four research colleagues to crisscross the nation speaking to audiences of treatment professionals. The grant, the only one of its kind offered by NIAAA, has enabled the UT team to educate at least 10,000 professionals.
As many as 30 million Americans abuse drugs and/or alcohol and are addicted to one or both of the substances. Erickson said the magnitude of this public health problem comes into even sharper focus considering that substance abuse and addiction cost this country $246 billion annually in lost productivity, incarceration, medical care, crime and traffic accidents.
Despite the staggering numbers, alcohol and drug research funding from the federal government is only $257 million. By contrast, the figure for cancer research is $2 billion.
Erickson said the reason for the gap in funding is that alcohol-related research began 30 years ago as opposed to cancer research, which began 50 years ago. At a minimum, he said, addiction and abuse research funding needs to triple.
One of the biggest hurdles Erickson faces in his presentations is overcoming misconceptions about the terms abuse and addiction. Abuse refers to intentional misuse; addiction refers to pathological dependence, a true medical disease.
“If we’re going to elevate alcoholism and other drug addictions to the levels of other diseases in this country, people have to understand the terminology,” he said.
Erickson and the Addiction Science Research and Education Center he heads have developed a brochure defining the terms and have sent it to the Texas news media. But much more work remains to be done.
There are many unanswered questions about the genetic basis of alcoholism and about how alcohol affects the brain. The University of Texas is making strides in these areas. UT researchers, working with a $5 million gift from the J. Virgil and M. June Waggoner Foundation, are studying the genetic basis of alcoholism at the molecular level.
Last year, pharmacologist Adron Harris, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the genetics of alcoholism, joined the UT faculty. He heads the University’s Center for the Study of Alcohol and Drug Dependency.
UT’s cross-disciplinary approach to this research includes researchers in communications, natural science, psychology, social work and pharmacy.
Key to the success of Erickson’s educational efforts are the work he does evaluating the success of the educational programs. Studies look at what makes the presenters effective and which segments of the audiences retain the most information. A special challenge for Erickson and his fellow scientists is learning to communicate effectively to a non-scientific audience.
On the educational team with Erickson are fellow pharmacy faculty members Rueben Gonzales and Richard Wilcox, Roseann Loop, professor of human ecology, and Timothy Schallert, professor of psychology.