Emily Loose - 02.14.20

Dr. Bill Meil, a professor in IUP’s Department of Psychology, presented the first of many programs in a series geared toward understanding drug and alcohol addiction.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a widely debated topic because no one is fully aware of where it comes from and its changes to the body. 

But according to one professor at IUP, one thing is certain: addiction is a disease.

“Understanding Addiction” was a program held on the IUP campus Tuesday to help the Indiana community have a better understanding of this issue.

Anne Sesti is the director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs (ATOD) office at IUP. She welcomed the audience to the program to give them an understanding of the talk’s importance.

“If we really want to help people, we need to be more compassionate,” she said.

According to Sesti, the ATOD office was given a grant by Pennsylvania to bring more awareness to drug and alcohol abuse due to the current opioid epidemic. Tuesday’s event was the first of four programs that the office will be holding.

Held in G-60 of Suites on Maple East, the first program was given by psychology professor Dr. Bill Meil, who has worked in the research of drug addiction for years. He worked in a lab that studied cocaine addiction in rats.

The first fact he made clear was that no one understands drug addiction entirely.

“Drug addiction doesn’t have a single answer,” he said. 

Meil said that there were many different combinations that could influence addiction. This includes a person’s genetics, stress levels and the environment around them. His talk was to focus on “appreciating” the complexity of addiction to help stop the stigma.

Though every drug is different and causes a different sensation, Meil said that they have more similarities overall than differences because they all affect the brain.

He also said that addiction is a brain disease and is not different from other illnesses. Just like other illnesses, relapses are common and happen to many sufferers. 

“Treatment, in reality, is not a possible goal for everyone.”

A study on 300 heroin addicts showed that, during a span of 20 years, most relapsed at least once. Compared to those suffering other illnesses, the rates were similar. 

Meil said that by making people aware that addiction is a disease, it will help diminish stigma.

But the question of where addiction comes from is harder to decipher.

The main point Meil said in his talk was that using a drug changes the brain and, in turn, will increase the chance of addiction.

After increased use the brain changes set points for the body because they become more used to being on drugs than not. This is what causes increase use and a harder withdrawal.

 However, social standards can also be a factor.

Meil asked the audience how many of their parents discussed drug use and alcohol before they came to college. Very few people raised their hands. He said this could increase usage because they were never told it was wrong. 

Mental health is another factor. 

According to Meil, those with depression are more likely to become addicted. While family drug abuse and alcoholism can also mean a four times higher chance, it is not always the case.

“Genetics do not mean destiny.” 

A study by Dr. Marc Schuckit looked at sons of alcoholics to see how their response to alcohol affected their chances of becoming alcoholics. While only 14 percent of those with a high response became alcoholics, 56 percent of those who had an abnormally low response did.

Despite this, only half of alcoholics come from families of alcoholism. 

Another question Meil answered was how drugs become addictive. It all stems from positive reinforcement. One of those reinforcements is the release of dopamine to the brain.

In his study on rats, he found that when they pressed a lever for more cocaine, their dopamine levels increased, and they would go back for more. When they were given dopamine blockers, they stopped pushing the lever.

However, he said there were limitations to this theory. Marijuana, a drug that increases dopamine levels, is not addictive. Nicotine, one of the most addictive drugs, does not give off any positive reinforcements. 

He also discussed how negative reinforcements could play a factor, such as withdrawal. 

“Drug addicts often say they continue to use to stop withdrawal symptoms,” he said. 

There are limitations to this, as well. If it was the driving force, increased withdrawal would stop relapses, but that is not always the case. It is one of the many arguments that those who say drug addiction is not a disease use, but Meil disagrees.

“Detox is only one step, but it is not treatment,” he said. “Addiction is a downward spiral and process.”

Meil told the audience the main reason he became interested in researching addiction. Years ago, he found himself homeless in San Francisco but found a friend who helped him find a job and somewhere to stay.

“I learned two things about him. The first was that he was an excellent drummer,” Meil said. “The second was that he was a heroin addict.”

He said this friend would be gone for weeks at a time and, one time, he had to be taken to the hospital. His track marks were infected, and the doctor told him that continued use could mean amputation.

Two days later, he was using it again.

“Drug addiction can override a person’s passion,” Meil said. “These people need help and deserve help.”

After the program was a support group for those whose lives were touched by the opioid epidemic. Sesti said there would be one after each of the programs and, if popular enough, would continue on throughout the year.

The next event in the program is Tuesday. It will be a panel discussing the impact addiction has on lives. It will be held in G-60 of Suites on Maple East.

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