By Chris Adams
The nation’s opioids epidemic is front and center in the news and among health and public officials. But other forms of addiction continue to ravage the country, and health officials are learning new ways to mitigate the damage from them.
Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, led National Press Foundation fellows through recent research findings on addiction. The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier biomedical research facility.
Koob has spent much of his career investigating the neurobiology of emotion, particularly how the brain processes reward and stress, and how the neurochemical underpinnings of emotional function can lead to addiction.
In the United States, 6 percent of the adult population – nearly 15 million people – meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. That’s less than people hooked on tobacco but more than on illicit drugs.
About 88,000 people die annually from alcohol-related causes.
“The toll of alcohol misuse is extreme in the United States,” he said.
Koob detailed recent research into alcohol use and misuse, including the impact of prenatal exposure to alcohol and the impact of drinking on adolescents. Among other things, recent research has shown that youth who drink heavily have structural abnormalities in the frontal cortex of their brains.
Another interesting finding is that while drinking among men has dropped in the past 15 years, among women it has increased. The gaps between women and men are narrowing for prevalence, frequency and intensity of drinking, early onset drinking, and drunk driving. Women are more likely to experience blackouts, liver inflammation and brain atrophy, he said.
The reasons why women are drinking more, he said, are unknown.
As for the impact of alcohol on opioids, he called the two a “dangerous combination.” Of all emergency room visits for opioid overdose, alcohol is involved in 15 percent of them.