UCSF Inaugurates New Center For The Neurobiology Of Addiction, One Of The First Research Enterprises Of Its Kind In The Country

May 01, 1998

UC San Francisco will inaugurate its new Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction on May 7 and May 8. It will be one of the nation's first research enterprises strictly devoted to understanding the biological basis of addiction from an interdisciplinary approach.

Leading scientists from across the country, including the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health, will mark the opening of the center in a two-day scientific symposium on addiction. The symposium is free and open to the public.

The center will bring together 20 core faculty - leading cellular and molecular neuroscientists at UCSF, including those from the Ernest Gallo Research Center and Clinic at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital, to focus their collaborative energies on the study of addiction. Addiction is considered the nation's leading health problem, with an economic cost of more than $200 billion, including medical costs and crime-related costs, according to NIDA data.

"The goal of the center is not only to produce new knowledge and take innovative approaches to addiction but to call attention to the fact that addiction is a solvable medical disorder which has not been attacked from a research perspective in the way many other medical problems have," said Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, UCSF professor of psychiatry and physiology and the center director.

Scientific advances in the last two decades have shown addiction, rather than being the result of a character flaw or weakness of will, is a chronic, but potentially treatable, brain disease that results from exposure of the brain to harmful drugs in susceptible individuals, Malenka said.

"One of the problems with addiction treatment and research has been that there has been a stigma attached to addiction, with addicts viewed as weak or immoral people," he said. "In fact, that is not the case. The biomedical research and medical communities now recognize that addiction should be thought of as a brain disorder, just as Alzheimer's disease or epilepsy are brain disorders."

Through use of advanced imaging tools, scientists have shown that addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, he said. The goal of the center is to understand how those changes occur at the molecular and cellular level and ultimately find ways to help reverse those effects.

The center, essentially an institute without walls, is expected to serve as a catalyst for new discoveries about the biology of addiction by supporting individual research projects and sponsoring regular meetings and symposia where scientists from diverse backgrounds and perspectives can share insights and plot new initiatives.

The center scientists, some of whom already have made major contributions to the field, will focus their research on three key areas: how addicting drugs act on receptors and other molecules in the brain; how these drugs disrupt normal communication between nerve cells in the brain; and how drugs impact the complex tapestry of neural circuits that affect thought, emotion and behavior, Malenka said.

While the focus will be on basic research, the hope is that the center will contribute to the development of new therapeutic approaches for addiction, which may be treated much like schizophrenia, depression or other brain disorders, he said.

"This center will take advantage of our new understanding of addiction as a brain disease to focus the power of modern biology on this terrible problem," said neuroscientist Zach Hall, PhD, UCSF vice chancellor for research and former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "As director of the Neurology Institute at the NIH, I worked closely with those at NIDA to develop a program of brain research on addiction. I am delighted to find upon my return that UCSF is engaged in a parallel effort."

The center was initiated by UCSF Chancellor Haile Debas, MD, who recognized the value of bringing together key UCSF faculty from various disciplines who had been conducting addiction research in isolation. Debas called together a faculty committee that enthusiastically endorsed the idea in 1997.

"Addiction as a disease has been obscured by the moral and philosophical labels that society has attached to the behaviors of people addicted to drugs of abuse," Debas said. "The creation of the UCSF Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction will be instrumental in changing the national dialogue about addiction because, you see, we are now able to demonstrate that it is a disease of the brain. "In this new research center, we have brought together superb basic scientists whose work, while diverse, all focuses on understanding the basic neurobiological mechanisms of addiction. Once you gain an understanding of these underlying mechanisms, then the dream of developing effective treatments becomes a real possibility," Debas added.

The center's initial funding was made possible through the efforts of Henry H. Wheeler, Jr., president of the Park Water Co., Inc. in Downey, Ca., and his wife, Maxyne.

The center expects to award roughly five to ten grants each year to individual investigators, Malenka said. It will support unique projects for which traditional funding is not readily available, especially projects by young investigators interested in entering the field. In order to excel in addiction research, the center is seeking to establish a permanent endowment fund to support faculty recruitments and increased research in addition to the founding support from Wheeler and Park Water Co.

The center will be officially launched in a symposium that begins at 3 p.m. on May 7 with introductions and an overview of the center by Chancellor Debas and Zach Hall. Alan Leshner, PhD, director of NIDA, will deliver the keynote speech entitled, "Advances in the Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: Implications for Prevention, Treatment and Policy."

"This center presents a unique opportunity to bring advances in drug abuse research to bear on the health and social policies that will most effectively curtail the costs and tragic consequences of drug addiction," Leshner said.

Leshner's talk will be followed by two scientific presentations. Thursday's events will be held in Room 300 in the Health Sciences West Building, 513 Parnassus Ave., on the UCSF main campus. On Friday, May 8, seven scientists will present their findings in talks scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Friday's session will be held in Room 301 in the Health Sciences West Building. For more details on the symposium, see the accompanying schedule of events or call (415) 476-7878.

Media Note: Media representatives who would like to attend should contact Bill Gordon at (415) 476-2557.

University of California - San Francisco

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