Researcher Receives Grant to Study Brain Activity of Addicts

By Kevin Rowe

LITTLE ROCK – For 25 years, Warren K. Bickel, Ph.D., director of the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), has studied the intricate brain functions of individuals addicted to various substances, including cocaine, tobacco and alcohol.


In an effort to expand his studies, Bickel recently received his fourth concurrent grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. About 2 percent of the NIH’s grant recipients ever receive four or more concurrent awards. This grant provides Bickel and his team $2.7 million dollars over a five-year period with the goal to determine whether the effects of addiction on executive function can be reversed or rehabilitated. Executive function refers to the ability to value, plan  and commit to future actions and goals.


“For a long time, we’ve recognized the importance of a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is the region responsible for handling the core elements of executive function,” said Bickel, a professor in UAMS’ College of Medicine and College of Public Health. “However, we have just come to learn that people with addictions do not use this brain region or executive function adequately. Our goal is to figure out how to increase the strength and utilization of executive function among such individuals.


“Use of the prefrontal cortex of the brain changes over time, depending on how much we use it,” Bickel, a member of UAMS’ Psychiatric Research Institute and Department of Psychiatry, said. “Addicts make decisions that are more immediate, decisions that may not seem right to other people. We know that by not using that portion of the brain to its fullest extent, its capacity for use diminishes. We want to produce conditions that will require utilization of that portion of the brain in addicts.”


All addicts value their particular addictive substance over virtually all other needs, whether it’s financial or emotional, Bickel said. To find out why they place such a strong emphasis on their addiction, Bickel and his research team plan to use neuro-cognitive techniques that have proven successful in treating others with difficulty using executive function, such as individuals with schizophrenia and traumatic brain injuries.   


“We’ll engage them in problem-solving tests that involve demands of increasing importance and reinforce those decisions that are appropriate or correct,” Bickel said. “We’ll measure their level of executive function before and after and then see what effect the therapy has on their ability to make decisions based on the future rather than their addiction.”


The goal, said Bickel, who is collaborating on the project with David Redish, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neuroscience, is to provide evidence of improved executive function in study participants, leading to new and innovative approaches into the research and treatment of addictions.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,652 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is one of the state’s largest public employers with about 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $5 billion a year. Visit