$3.6 Million Grant Awarded to Study Decisions of Drug Users

By David Robinson

The grant will be used to fund a five-year study of the methods used by cocaine addicts to make decisions regarding specific needs. The study will utilize magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify those portions of the brain that addicts use in deliberating over potentially dangerous subjects.

“We know that individuals who are cocaine dependent make risky decisions, decisions that will put them at risk for anything from auto accidents to sexually transmitted diseases,” said Bickel, a professor in the UAMS Department of Psychiatry and the holder of the Wilbur D. Mills Chair of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Prevention. “All of their decisions revolve around the drug. Now we’re going to study active users, recreational users and those who have never used cocaine to see how they make specific decisions involving risky behaviors.”

By NIDA’s estimates, the total costs of substance abuse in the United States — including health- and crime-related costs as well as losses in productivity — exceed half a trillion dollars annually. This includes about $181 billion for illicit drugs, $168 billion for tobacco and $185 billion for alcohol.

Bickel will be working with the Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC), which, like CAR, is a research division of the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute. Utilizing the powerful 3 Tesla MRI scanner in the BIRC, Bickel will analyze the brain functions of the three unique groups to determine how each interprets topics of interest. He and his staff are recruiting subjects to take part in the study, which is being done in conjunction with the Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory in Houston. Bickel is co-principal investigator with Read Montague, Ph.D., a professor in the Baylor Department of Neuroscience.

“When the study is completed, we will be able to identify what aspects of the brain are involved in risky decisions,” Bickel said. “We believe that, within the brain, there is a common pathway that leads us to certain points of interest. If we can find the one that leads to risky behavior, then maybe we can find ways to change it.”

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a 540,000-square-foot hospital; a statewide network of regional centers; and six institutes: 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. UAMS has 2,775 students and 748 medical residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 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. Visit www.uams.edu or uamshealth.com.