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Rutgers professor encourages scientific approach to NJ drug crisis

After exposing laboratory mice to a certain drug, Dr. Gary Aston-Jones, the director of the Brain Health Institute at Rutgers, found that those who had more experience with the drug were more willing to experience minor shocks than those who had less experience. – Photo by null

Opioid addiction is an extremely prevalent issue that does not discriminate against a specific race, class or gender — but rather affects a wide range of demographics. 

Dr. Gary Aston-Jones, the director of the Brain Health Institute at Rutgers, has spent several years studying and specializing in addiction neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. By combining his two veins of research, he examines the interaction between cognitive processes and addiction processes. 

Aston-Jones said that people normally partake in long-term planning, like going to school and starting a career and a family. Because they have those goals, they understand the sacrifices they have to make, like refraining from staying out late and partying all the time. There is a clear executive control over their behavior to service those long-term goals. 

“When a person becomes addicted to a substance, the substance gains control, and the person loses a lot of that executive control," he said. "The person, will in fact, say to themselves, ‘oh well I know that’s bad for me. I’m not going to do that anymore.’ But then they find themselves taking the drug again even though they’re saying they’re not going to.” 

Using rats to conduct his experiments, Aston-Jones has rats self administer cocaine or opiates like fentanyl and then conducts various experiments with different behavioral paradigms. 

Using behavioral economics studies — how much an animal has to work to get a drug — he found that when animals have a lot of experience with a drug they are willing to work harder to get it. 

“We also look at how much footshock they’re willing to take to get the drug. The way we do that is we start with no footshock when they get the drug, and then as the session goes on, they start getting a little bit of shock and in order to get the drug. Then they press a lever to get a little more shock to get the drug. At some point, they say, 'it’s not worth it to me,'" he said.

An animal that is not addicted will give up faster than an animal who has had a lot of experience with a drug. Aston-Jones made a parallel to the “shock” in human lives. He said the “shock” for humans is self-sabotage and doing things to get drugs that are ultimately harmful to themselves. 

“They’ll take drugs even though it makes them lose their job, it makes them lose their family. Tons of negative consequences of taking drugs, and addicts know of these negative consequences but they do it anyway,” he said.

Aston-Jones spoke about the efforts former Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) made to mitigate the opioid crisis.

In December, Christie came to Rutgers to announce that the University will receive $1.3 million in state funding to introduce the nation’s first ever apprenticeship program for Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors. 

The School of Management and Labor Relations reported that the apprenticeship will consist of 270 hours of free classroom instruction at Rutgers and 3,100 hours of supervised, paid on-the-job training with a participating healthcare employer. The classroom instruction will cover scientific addiction, counseling techniques, crisis intervention, case management and addiction recovery.

Aston-Jones said that he thinks the program is great for raising awareness about the crisis but is not focused on treating the root of the issue. 

“I’ve looked at everything (Christie has) said and read everything he’s written about (on) all his addiction programs. The word 'research' doesn’t appear once. And the point is addiction is a chronically relapsing disease, so if all you do is treat it, you are forever condemned to need to keep treating it," Aston-Jones said. "Treating it isn’t going to make it go away. We have to understand what causes it in order to prevent it and in order to reverse it. Otherwise, people just stay addicts. Even if they’re in treatment, 80 percent will relapse."

Christie’s efforts are not fundamentally changing the addiction problem but are rather approaching the surface level. 

In an effort to push for more research on the issue, Aston-Jones said the University is starting an addiction research center on campus that will involve faculty and laboratories communicating across levels to inform each other about addiction. It will include molecular genetic approaches, animal models, clinical research and the School of Public Health and Policy to understand how to prevent addiction from occurring.

He said he has met with people in Christie’s administration about the dynamics of opioid addiction and explained the critical role research plays in the issue, but that Christie’s speech at Rutgers last month never included the word “research."

“I think there is a need for more communication between people like me and the legislative end of the spectrum to increase funding and support for research and make them aware that research is needed as well as treatment ... (Christie) needs to broaden his base of people that he communicates with, I guess, and broaden his own thinking about it,” Aston-Jones said.

The new addiction research center should open within the next year and is projected to be the biggest addiction center in the state of New Jersey, Aston-Jones said. 

The center's director will be tasked with communicating with the legislators in the state to better direct resources and legislation that effectively deals with the problem, he said.

Aston-Jones discussed how the issue directly affects the Rutgers community and the New Brunswick area. 

In November, The Daily Targum reported that the New Brunswick Police Department had administered 95 doses of Narcan, a drug commonly used to counteract opioid overdose, in 2017 — an increase from previous years.

“There’s drugs in universities, and that includes opiates so they need to understand that they’re dangerous, and they’re dangerous even if they’re pills. They don’t need to be injected to be dangerous. They don’t need to be smoked to be dangerous. Just a pill can make you addicted. It’s not just dangerous in the long term, it’s dangerous the first time you do it,” he said.

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