As everyone by now has heard, the U.S is experiencing an epidemic. I’m not talking about infrastructure or climate change or income inequality, rather I am referring to the current opioid crisis. You see, a couple of decades ago big pharma companies created drugs that resemble the effects of opium, a drug known for its pain killing effects as well as its capability to start wars. These drugs where marketed as same pain killers that where much more effective then aspirin or ibuprofen. Soon, doctors were prescribing these pills left and right to people with chronic pain, post-surgery pain, or even people with bad tooth aches. Eventually however people got hooked. You see, drugs that are very similar in molecular structure to heroin started getting people addicted. Who would’ve guessed that? People started to take more of these drugs to get their “fix” and this only increased their tolerance. Many of these people would turn to stronger opioids like heroine or fentanyl. These drugs have a high likelihood of overdose with chronic use. It is no surprise then that overdose has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death in the U.S.
What can be done about this tragedy? While many have suggested tighter regulations on big pharma, who are we kidding by expecting these regulations to become law? Instead, the best alternative is to try to stop people from wanting the drugs in the first place. In my lab I have been assigned to test different drugs on rats to see if it stops the cravings for opioids. By using the classic Skinner Box, rats are trained to self-administer Remifentanil, a type of opioid, in a manner that mimics addiction. Whenever the rat presses the correct lever, a dose of Remifentanil is intravenously injected into the rat via a catheter. Once these rats are dependent like a human addict, we will give them either the test drug (we are testing different drugs in different individual studies) or saline (as the control group). If it is found that rats injected with the test drug stop self-administering Remifentanil, it would mean that this drug could potentially be prescribed to opioid addicts as a way to curb their addiction. If successful, the drugs we are testing could save countless lives from potential overdose.
The use of drugs to treat behavioral traits is not knew. Instead of therapy or lifestyle changes, many people with anxiety or depression will opt to take SSRI’s to treat their mental illness. This has proved to be more practical, and often more effective than therapy and has greatly helped millions of people. While all mind-altering drugs have potential side-effects, the illness or addiction is often worse than the occasional dizziness or mood swings. While it may seem ironic, the truth of the matter is that our only hope to fight drug use is using more drugs. Welcome to the 21st century everyone!