Convener’s Introduction: Why This Science Matters?
Wouldn't it be wonderful to attribute our compulsion for addictive damaging activities, such as over-drinking, smoking or taking illicit drugs, wholly to our genetic make-up? Then we could blame our parents for everything! We know it is bad for us, but we still do it. Why?
It struck me that the impetus given by major new funding announcements from President Obama and EU Research Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn to literally map the brain, offered the perfect opportunity to take a fresh look at the addictions that, put simply, are avoidable but kill us the most. We can look for life on Mars but why do we not yet fully understand our most basic compulsions?
New research on brain reward systems is throwing conventional wisdom on its head. For example, why are less than 25% of heroin users proven to be dependent while other addictive substances need only one try for a permanent susceptibility to addiction to occur?
Legislative topicality is also a certainty with individual governments and global or regional bodies like the WHO or EU grappling with these issues. How does alcohol trigger addiction-like neuro adaptive responses in our brain-reward circuitry? Why is binge drinking on the rise? How does nicotine work as the principal reinforcing component in tobacco smoke responsible for addiction? Are e-cigarette technologies to be welcomed as ‘safer’?
This consultation event aims to shed new light for policy-makers and the scientific community alike, on how the three strands of biological, psychological and social elements work together. Family, twin and adoption studies have established that addictions of all types have a strong genetic basis. Recent clinical and pre-clinical research is uncovering the specific genetic factors associated with the onset of these conditions. Put simply, we now know there is a connection between genetics and disease, but establishing a relationship between genetic variation and behaviour is far trickier. Global science is only beginning to understand why.
This event will focus on what this science is telling us. It will highlight that genetics plays but one part. The experts convened will explode widely held myths on the causes of addiction and what constitutes an addict. They will demonstrate that compulsive behaviour usually comes about after extended access and that, in some instances, freeing oneself from one substance addiction may mean brain susceptibility to another. As biologically deterministic as that may sound, we all have our aptitudes, traits and susceptibilities - and free will can prevail. The latest research proves that the same is true with addiction.
The assembled group of experts and attendees are individuals with pertinent experiences of real-life scientific support to policy-making. You represent all stakeholder groups and stages of science-policy interaction from conception and development to implementation, monitoring and evaluation. You understand the daily challenge of “evidence-based policy versus policy-biased evidence”. Some of you also deal with the addicted and the dying. Your common cause is to champion continued global research into the many unknown underlying mechanisms and to overcome political barriers.
In our planning, there is a deliberate attempt to avoid a top-down approach and pre-judging the outcomes. The emphasis is on equality, open discussion and the harvesting of ideas. Regardless of political allegiances or personal standpoints, this consultation event is specifically designed to allow us to take a step back, to debate with and to learn from each other and, most importantly, to acknowledge best practices and pitfalls. The consequences are profound for global public health policy.
Aidan Gilligan, CEO, SciCom – Making Sense of Science