2020 Drug Overdoses Were “Horrifying”

August 31, 2021

Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director
National Institute on Drug Abuse

The provisional drug overdose death statistics for 2020 confirmed the addiction field’s worst fears. More people died of overdoses in the United States last year than in any other one-year period in our history. More than 93,000 people died. The increase from the previous year was also more than we’ve ever seen—up 30 percent. These data are telling us that something is wrong. In fact, they are shouting for change.

The provisional drug overdose death statistics for 2020 confirmed the addiction field’s worst fears. More people died of overdoses in the United States last year than in any other one-year period in our history. More than 93,000 people died. The increase from the previous year was also more than we’ve ever seen—up 30 percent. These data are telling us that something is wrong. In fact, they are shouting for change.

It is no longer a question of “doing more” to combat our nation’s drug problems. What we as a society are doing—putting people with drug addiction behind bars, under-investing in prevention and compassionate medical care—is not working. Even as we work to create better scientific solutions to this crisis, it is beyond frustrating—it is tragic—to see the effective prevention and treatment tools we already have just not being used. The benefits of providing effective substance use disorder treatments—especially medication for opioid use disorder—are well-known. Yet decades of prejudice against treating substance use disorders with medication has greatly limited their reach, partly accounting for why only 18% of people with opioid use disorder receive medications. Historical reluctance to provide these treatments and of insurers to cover them reflects the stigma that has long made people with addiction a low priority.

We must eliminate the attitudes and infrastructure barring treating people with substance use disorders. This means making it easier for clinicians to provide life-saving medications, expanding models of care like digital health technologies and mobile clinics that can reach people where they are, and ensuring that payers cover treatments that work. The science of the matter is unequivocal: Addiction is a chronic and treatable medical condition, not a weakness of will or character or a form of social deviance. But stigma and longstanding prejudices—even within healthcare—lead decision-makers across healthcare, criminal justice, and other systems to punish people who use drugs rather than treat them. That approach may be simpler than asking us as a society to have compassion or care for people with a devastating, debilitating, often fatal disorder. But the risk of incarceration does not deter drug use, let alone address addiction; it perpetuates stigma, and disproportionately harms the most vulnerable communities.

Evidence-based harm reduction, such as syringe services programs, also need to be a part of any solution to our drug crisis, as these have been shown to reduce HIV and hepatitis C transmission, and help link people to treatment for addiction and other conditions. While the federal government has embraced evidence-based harm-reduction programs, many communities continue to resist them, erroneously thinking they sanction or encourage drug use. Multiple independent studies have shown that they don’t. Researchers are also evaluating innovative but historically controversial strategies operating abroad like overdose prevention centers, where people can use substances under medical supervision and access other health services, to evaluate cost-effectiveness and ability to reduce deaths and improve health.

Part of the failure of the current approach to the drug crisis arises from the unrealistic expectation that people should—and can—just stop using drugs. Little concern is shown for people with addiction unless and until they are drug-free, but the reality is that difficulties and resumed use typically mark the recovery journey. Compassion, care, and support need to extend to those still using drugs and those who return to drug use, not just to those who can satisfy the stringent standards of abstinence. Everyone with a substance use disorder, regardless of whether they are currently using drugs, needs good healthcare and may also need help with housing, employment, and childcare needs.

To prevent young people from misusing drugs and to keep people from all ages from developing substance use disorders, our nation must address the social and economic stressors that increase the risk of drug use, such as poverty and housing instability, unsafe neighborhoods and schools, and other effects of a changing economy including social isolation and despair. Drug overdose deaths are one component of the “deaths of despair” that, along with suicide and alcohol-related illness, have caused life expectancy to decline in the U.S., even before the 1.5-year drop in 2020 caused largely by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the ground, evidence-based interventions can make a big difference: Universal prevention programs as well as interventions targeted to the most at-risk families and youth not only reduce the risk of later drug taking and addiction but have radiating benefits on other aspects of mental and physical health.

This poses a question of collective willingness to invest in these measures. The long-term savings in healthcare and justice costs relative to the costs of prevention interventions can be substantial. But they are long-term investments with benefits that will take time to accrue, and the nature of our society is to look at short-term bottom lines and expect immediate results. Radical change to save lives is long overdue. It is crucial that scientists help policymakers and other leaders rethink how we collectively address drugs and drug use, looking to the evidence base of what improves health and reduces harms across communities, and funding research to develop new prevention and treatment tools.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A step by step guide on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on the Treatment page.

Stigma and the Toll of Addiction

By Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Addiction

Original Post April 20, 2020

Each day in 2018, an average of 185 people in the United States died from a drug overdose (1). In fact, recent declines in U.S. life expectancy are being attributed to direct and indirect effects of alcohol and drug use disorders. Expanding the number of people receiving evidence-based addiction treatment is crucial for reversing these trends. But among the many challenges in delivering appropriate care to the nearly 20 million people in the United States with substance use disorders is the chilling effect of stigma. Stigma not only impedes access to treatment and care delivery; it also contributes to the disorder on the individual level. Stigma associated with many mental health conditions is a well-recognized problem. But whereas considerable progress has been made in recent decades in reducing the stigma associated with some psychiatric disorders such as depression, such change has been much slower in relation to substance use disorders (2). One obstacle is that this stigma has causes beyond those that apply to most other conditions. People who are addicted to drugs sometimes lie or steal and can behave aggressively, especially when experiencing withdrawal or intoxication-triggered paranoia. These behaviors are transgressions of social norms that make it hard even for their loved ones to show them compassion, so it is easy to see why strangers or health care workers may be rejecting or unsympathetic.

Tacit beliefs or assumptions about personal responsibility — and the false belief that willpower should be sufficient to stop drug use — are never entirely absent from most people’s thoughts when they interact with someone with a drug problem. Health care professionals are not immune to these assumptions. Indeed, they may hold stigmatizing views of people with addictions (3) that may even lead them to withhold care. In emergency departments, for instance, health care professionals may be dismissive of someone with an alcohol or drug problem because they don’t view it as a medical condition and therefore don’t see its treatment as part of their job. People who inject drugs are sometimes denied care in emergency departments and other hospital settings because they are believed to be drug-seeking. In part, the difficulty reflects continued resistance to the idea that addiction is a disease. Drug use alters brain circuitry that is involved in self-regulation and reward processing, as well as brain circuits that process mood and stress. For a person with a serious substance use disorder, taking drugs is no longer pleasurable or volitional, for the most part, but is instead a means of diminishing excruciating distress and satisfying powerful cravings — despite often devastating consequences. Some people are more vulnerable than others to developing a substance use disorder because of a genetic predisposition, adverse social environmental exposures, traumatic life experiences, or other factors. To recover, they often need external help and support — evidence-based treatment, with medication when possible. Unfortunately, their encounters with health care providers may serve only to reinforce their disorder.

While visiting a makeshift heroin “shooting gallery” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I urged a man who had what appeared to be a massive abscess in his leg to go to an emergency room to get it treated. He refused to even consider it, and told me that when he had previously sought medical help, he had been so badly mistreated that he was frightened of returning. He would rather jeopardize his life or risk a leg amputation than endure being dismissed as a “drug addict.” Stigma not only impedes care delivery, it also most likely causes us to underestimate the burden of substance use disorders in the population. But stigma plays an even larger role in this crisis, one that has been less discussed: when internalized, stigma and the painful isolation it produces encourage further drug taking, directly exacerbating the disease.

Ever since the “Rat Park” experiments of the 1970s, which showed that animals housed in enriched environments with access to other rats self-administered morphine much less frequently than those housed in isolation, social isolation has been known to play a crucial role in vulnerability to and difficulty of recovering from addiction. Research on social reinforcement and its neurobiologic mechanisms has illuminated the links between stigma and drug use. For one thing, there is substantial overlap between the neurologic underpinnings of drug rewards and those of social rewards. Research by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA has found that social pain is processed in some of the same brain areas that process physical pain and is quelled by pain relievers (4).

Strikingly, a recent article by Venniro and colleagues reported that when given a choice between self-administering a drug and interacting with another animal, methamphetamine- or heroin-dependent rats chose the social interaction. However, when they were punished for the social choice with an electric shock before the interaction, the rats reverted to choosing the drug (5). In a sense, stigmatizing treatment of people who use drugs, such as ignoring or rejecting them, may be the equivalent of an electric shock in the cycle of drug addiction: it’s a powerful social penalty that spurs further drug taking. Stigma is not the only factor impeding adequate treatment of people with substance use disorders, but if we are to achieve the public health goal of getting and retaining many more people with substance use disorders in treatment, we have to ensure that the health care system will not penalize people who are addicted to drugs for their condition. Among other steps, improving treatment will require training physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and emergency department staff in providing compassionate care to patients who may display the difficult, sometimes frightening behaviors associated with drug addiction and withdrawal.

It is also necessary to promote awareness of addiction as a chronic relapsing (and treatable) brain disease. This effort should include promoting understanding of the disease’s behavioral consequences as well as of the factors that make certain people particularly vulnerable. Susceptibility to the brain changes leading to compulsive substance use is substantially modulated by genetic, developmental, psychiatric, and social factors, many of which are out of the person’s control. Given the gravity of the current overdose crisis, it is urgent that we conduct research aimed at overcoming stigma toward people with addiction. Yet even in the absence of research, common sense can guide us: respect and compassion are essential. People working in health care should be made aware that stigmatizing people who are addicted to opioids or other drugs inflicts social pain that not only impedes the practice of medicine but also further entrenches the disorder.

References

  1. Hedegaard H, Miniño AM, Warner M. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2018: NCHS data brief no 356. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, January 2020 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db356.htm. opens in new tab).
  2. Corrigan PW, Nieweglowski K. Stigma and the public health agenda for the opioid crisis in America. Int J Drug Policy 2018;59:44-49.
  3. Kennedy-Hendricks A, Busch SH, McGinty EE, et al. Primary care physicians’ perspectives on the prescription opioid epidemic. Drug Alcohol Depend 2016;165:61-70.
  4. Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, et al. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol Sci 2010;21:931-937.
  5. Venniro M, Zhang M, Caprioli D, et al. Volitional social interaction prevents drug addiction in rat models. Nat Neurosci 2018;21:1520-1529.

Many Questions Remain About Youth Substance Use Trends

December 15, 2020

The following is from the web blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA.

The results of the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use and attitudes in middle and high school students were released today, with the encouraging news that the alarming rises in teen vaping both of nicotine and marijuana seen in prior years had leveled off, although use remained high. But as with so many other efforts in 2020, the MTF survey was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are left at the end of this tumultuous year with many questions about how circumstances have affected youth, their substance use, and their mental health more generally.

The MTF survey is ordinarily conducted from February until May, with the results released later the same year. This year, schools closed in mid-March before the majority of the students could be surveyed, leaving the University of Michigan researchers who conduct the survey with a smaller-than-usual sample—11,821 students in 112 schools. Although only a quarter the size of the usual sample, it remained nationally representative and contained much valuable data.

Generally, the 2020 MTF showed continued low levels of most forms of substance use among teens, including very low levels of opioid use despite the devastating effects opioids have had on all older age groups including young adults. However, there are other indications that the evolving addiction and overdose crisis is directly affecting youth. For example, a study by CDC researchers just published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows increases in suspected nonfatal overdoses involving stimulants (a category that includes prescription stimulants, cocaine, and methamphetamine) in children and teens between 2016 and 2019. MTF shows decreases in use of prescription stimulants in 10th and 12th graders but a trend toward increased use among 8th graders. It will be important to closely monitor adolescent stimulant use in future MTF surveys.

The MTF data collected at the beginning of this year reflect a certain point of relative normality before the COVID-19 pandemic threw all our lives into upheaval, including the lives of teens. As we seek to understand adolescent substance use in this new reality, we look to research to answer many important questions on how the stresses of the pandemic may have affected substance use by teens. For example, it is important to investigate the consequences of social distancing and virtual classes on adolescent drug experimentation and use, since those are strongly influenced by peer pressure and group dynamics. NIDA has issued supplemental funds to existing grantees to help study the impact of the pandemic on adolescents’ risk of substance use; their access to prevention and treatment services; and the pandemic’s effects on families. Future research, including the results of next year’s MTF survey, can help us understand how school closures and lockdowns affected adolescent substance use.  

Although research has suggested that the pandemic’s stresses have increased many forms of substance use in adults, it remains to be seen whether reduced ability to interact with peers or other sources of drugs may be a mitigating factor in youth. There is already evidence that reduced commercial availability of vape products during the pandemic may be affecting teen vaping. Researchers at Stanford and University of California San Francisco captured self-reported vaping habits of 2,167 teen and young-adult e-cigarette users in May, two months after the national emergency was declared and after MTF stopped gathering data for the 2020 survey. Over half of the respondents reported changing their use of vaping products, with 68 percent of those reporting that they had reduced their use or quit. Inability to purchase the products was one reason cited.

2020 has posed many urgent questions for science. Finding out the different ways the pandemic and other stresses of the year have affected young people is a high priority. Adolescence is an important period of social and emotional development, and the pandemic has disrupted many of the processes that impact that development. NIDA research has pivoted to ensure we address this unique time in history as we pursue scientific solutions to the impacts of drug use and addiction across the lifespan.

The Connection Between Substance Use Disorder and Mental Illness

From National Institute on Drug Abuse

Many individuals who develop substance use disorders (SUD) are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa. Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa. Although there are fewer studies on comorbidity among youth, research suggests that adolescents with substance use disorders also have high rates of co-occurring mental illness; over 60 percent of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.

Data show high rates of co-morbid substance use disorders and anxiety disorders—which include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance use disorders also co-occur at high prevalence with mental disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Patients with schizophrenia have higher rates of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use disorders than the general population. As Figure 1 shows, the overlap is especially pronounced with serious mental illness (SMI). Serious mental illness among people ages 18 and older is defined at the federal level as having, at any time during the past year, a diagnosable mental, behavior, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders that cause serious impairment. Around 1 in 4 individuals with SMI also have an SUD.

This graph shows the percent of co-occuring substance use disorder and serious mental illness in the past year among people aged 18 or older from 2009 to 2015.

Data from a large nationally representative sample suggested that people with mental, personality, and substance use disorders were at increased risk for non-medical use of prescription opioids. Research indicates that 43 percent of people in SUD treatment for non-medical use of prescription painkillers have a diagnosis or symptoms of mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety.

Source: NIDA. 2020, May 28. Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness on 2020, October 8.

Misuse of Prescription Drugs: A Research Study

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From the Website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
Dr. Lora, Volkow, Executive Director
June 2020

Misuse of prescription drugs means taking a medication in a manner or dose other than prescribed; taking someone else’s prescription, even if for a legitimate medical complaint such as pain; or taking a medication to feel euphoria (i.e., to get high). The term non-medical use of prescription drugs also refers to these categories of misuse. The three classes of medication most commonly misused are:

  • opioids—usually prescribed to treat pain
  • central nervous system [CNS] depressants (this category includes tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics)—used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • stimulants—most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Prescription drug misuse can have serious medical consequences. Increases in prescription drug misuse over the last 15 years are reflected in increased emergency room visits, overdose deaths associated with prescription drugs, and treatment admissions for prescription drug use disorders, the most severe form of which is an addiction. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999.

Misuse of prescription opioids, CNS depressants, and stimulants is a serious public health problem in the United States. Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, in 2017, an estimated 18 million people (more than 6 percent of those aged 12 and older) have misused such medications at least once in the past year. According to results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 2 million Americans misused prescription pain relievers for the first time within the past year, which averages to approximately 5,480 initiates per day. Additionally, more than one million misused prescription stimulants, 1.5 million misused tranquilizers, and 271,000 misused sedatives for the first time.

The reasons for the high prevalence of prescription drug misuse vary by age, gender, and other factors, but likely include ease of access. The number of prescriptions for some of these medications has increased dramatically since the early 1990s. Moreover, misinformation about the addictive properties of prescription opioids and the perception that prescription drugs are less harmful than illicit drugs are other possible contributors to the problem. Although misuse of prescription drugs affects many Americans, certain populations such as youth and older adults may be at particular risk.

Adolescents and Young Adults

Misuse of prescription drugs is highest among young adults ages 18 to 25, with 14.4 percent reporting non-medical use in the past year. Among youth ages 12 to 17, 4.9 percent reported past-year non-medical use of prescription medications.

After alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco, prescription drugs (taken non-medically) are among the most commonly used drugs by 12th graders. NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey of substance use and attitudes in teens found that about 6 percent of high school seniors reported past-year non-medical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall® in 2017, and 2 percent reported misusing the opioid pain reliever Vicodin®.

Although past-year non-medical use of CNS depressants has remained fairly stable among 12th graders since 2012, use of prescription opioids has declined sharply. For example, past-year non-medical use of Vicodin among 12th graders was reported by 9.6 percent in 2002 and declined to 2.0 percent in 2017. Non-medical use of Adderall® increased between 2009 and 2013, but has been decreasing through 2017. When asked how they obtained prescription stimulants for non-medical use, around 60 percent of the adolescents and young adults surveyed said they either bought or received the drugs from a friend or relative.

Youth who misuse prescription medications are also more likely to report use of other drugs. Multiple studies have revealed associations between prescription drug misuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking; heavy episodic drinking; and marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drug use among U.S. adolescents, young adults, and college students. In the case of prescription opioids, receiving a legitimate prescription for these drugs during adolescence is also associated with a greater risk of future opioid misuse, particularly in young adults who have little to no history of drug use.

Older Adults

More than 80 percent of older patients (ages 57 to 85 years) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily. This can potentially lead to health issues resulting from unintentionally using a prescription medication in a manner other than how it was prescribed, or from intentional non-medical use. The high rates of multiple (co-morbid) chronic illnesses in older populations, age-related changes in drug metabolism, and the potential for drug interactions make medication (and other substance) misuse more dangerous in older people than in younger populations. Further, a large percentage of older adults also use over-the-counter medicines and dietary and herbal supplements, which could compound any adverse health consequences resulting from non-medical use of prescription drugs.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A step by step guide on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on the Treatment page.

Narcotics Anonymous National Hotline: 1(877) 276-6883.

Addressing the Stigma that Surrounds Addiction

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From the Monthly Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Exec. Dir.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE

Original Date April 22, 2020

Untreated drug and alcohol use contribute to tens of thousands of deaths every year and impact the lives of many more. Healthcare already has effective tools including medications for opioid and alcohol use disorder that could prevent many of these deaths, but they are not being utilized widely enough, and many people who could benefit do not even seek them out. One important reason is the stigma that surrounds people with addiction.

Man sitting alone in streetlight at night

Stigma is a problem with health conditions ranging from cancer and HIV to many mental illnesses. Some gains have been made in reducing stigma around certain conditions; public education and widespread use of effective medications has demystified depression, for instance, making it somewhat less taboo now than it was in past generations. But little progress has been made in removing the stigma around substance use disorders. People with addiction continue to be blamed for their disease. Even though medicine long ago reached a consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder with behavioral components, the public and even many in healthcare and the justice system continue to view it as a result of moral weakness and flawed character.

Stigma on the part of healthcare providers who tacitly see a patient’s drug or alcohol problem as their own fault leads to substandard care or even to rejecting individuals seeking treatment. People showing signs of acute intoxication or withdrawal symptoms are sometimes expelled from emergency rooms by staff fearful of their behavior or assuming they are only seeking drugs. People with addiction internalize this stigma, feeling shame and refusing to seek treatment as a result.

In a Perspective published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Volkow tells the story about a man she met who was injecting heroin in his leg at a “shooting gallery”—a makeshift injection site—in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during a visit to that country several years ago. His leg was severely infected, and Dr. Volkow urged him to visit an emergency room—but he refused. He had been treated horribly on previous occasions, so preferred risking his life, or probable amputation, to the prospect of repeating his humiliation. This highlights a dimension of stigma that has been less remarked on in the literature and that is uniquely important for people with substance use disorders: Beyond just impeding the provision or seeking of care, stigma may actually enhance or reinstate drug use, playing a key part in the vicious cycle that drives addicted people to continue using drugs.

Previously on her montly blog Dr. Volkow highlighted research by Marco Venniro at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program, showing that rodents dependent on heroin or methamphetamine still choose social interaction over drug self-administration, given a choice; but when the social choice is punished, the animals revert to the drug. It is a profound finding, very likely applicable to humans, since we are highly social beings. Some of us respond to social as well as physical punishments by turning to substances to alleviate our pain. The humiliating rejection experienced by people who are stigmatized for their drug use acts as a powerful social punishment, driving them to continue and perhaps intensify their drug-taking.

The stigmatization of people with substance use disorders may be even more problematic in the current COVID-19 crisis. In addition to their greater risk through homelessness and drug use itself, the legitimate fear around contagion may mean that bystanders or even first responders will be reluctant to administer naloxone to people who have overdosed. And there is a danger that overtaxed hospitals will preferentially pass over those with obvious drug problems when making difficult decisions about where to direct lifesaving personnel and resources.

Alleviating stigma is not easy, in part because the rejection of people with addiction or mental illness arises from violations of social norms. Even people in healthcare, if they do not have training in caring for people with substance use disorders, may be at a loss as to how to interact with someone acting threateningly because of withdrawal or some drugs’ effects (e.g., PCP). It is crucial that people across healthcare, from staff in emergency departments to physicians, nurses, and physician assistants, be trained in caring compassionately and competently for people with substance use disorders. Treating patients with dignity and compassion is the first step.

There must be wider recognition that susceptibility to the brain changes in addiction are substantially influenced by factors outside an individual’s control, such as genetics or the environment in which one is born and raised, and that medical care is often necessary to facilitate recovery as well as avert the worst outcomes like overdose. When people with addiction are stigmatized and rejected, especially by those within healthcare, it only contributes to the vicious cycle that entrenches their disease.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1(800) 273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

You can also find help through Narcotics Anonymous at 844-335-2408.

COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders

From National Institute on Drug Abuse
March 24, 2020

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As people across the U.S. and the rest of the world contend with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the research community should be alert to the possibility that it could hit some populations with substance use disorders (SUDs) particularly hard. Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape. People with opioid use disorder (OUD) and methamphetamine use disorder may also be vulnerable due to those drugs’ effects on respiratory and pulmonary health. Additionally, individuals with a substance use disorder are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than those in the general population, and these circumstances pose unique challenges regarding transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. All these possibilities should be a focus of active surveillance as we work to understand this emerging health threat.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is believed to have jumped species from other mammals (likely bats) to first infect humans in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, in late 2019. It attacks the respiratory tract and appears to have a higher fatality rate than seasonal influenza. The exact fatality rate is still unknown, since it depends on the number of undiagnosed and asymptomatic cases, and further analyses are needed to determine those figures. Thus far, deaths and serious illness from COVID-19 seem concentrated among those who are older and who have underlying health issues, such as diabetes, cancer, and respiratory conditions. It is therefore reasonable to be concerned that compromised lung function or lung disease related to smoking history, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), could put people at risk for serious complications of COVID-19.

Co-occurring conditions including COPD, cardiovascular disease, and other respiratory diseases have been found to worsen prognosis in patients with other coronaviruses that affect the respiratory system, such as those that cause SARS and MERS. According to a case series published in JAMA based on data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), the case fatality rate (CFR) for COVID-19 was 6.3 percent for those with chronic respiratory disease, compared to a CFR of 2.3 percent overall. In China, 52.9 percent of men smoke, in contrast to just 2.4 percent of women; further analysis of the emerging COVID-19 data from China could help determine if this disparity is contributing to the higher mortality observed in men compared to women, as reported by China CDC. While data thus far are preliminary, they do highlight the need for further research to clarify the role of underlying illness and other factors in susceptibility to COVID-19 and its clinical course.

Vaping, like smoking, may also harm lung health. Whether it can lead to COPD is still unknown, but emerging evidence suggests that exposure to aerosols from e-cigarettes harms the cells of the lung and diminishes the ability to respond to infection. In one NIH-supported study, for instance, influenza virus-infected mice exposed to these aerosols had enhanced tissue damage and inflammation.

People who use opioids at high doses medically or who have Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) face separate challenges to their respiratory health. Since opioids act in the brainstem to slow breathing, their use not only puts the user at risk of life-threatening or fatal overdose, it may also cause a harmful decrease in oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia). Lack of oxygen can be especially damaging to the brain; while brain cells can withstand short periods of low oxygen, they can suffer damage when this state persists. Chronic respiratory disease is already known to increase overdose mortality risk among people taking opioids, and thus diminished lung capacity from COVID-19 could similarly endanger this population.

A history of methamphetamine use may also put people at risk. Methamphetamine constricts the blood vessels, which is one of the properties that contributes to pulmonary damage and pulmonary hypertension in people who use it. Clinicians should be prepared to monitor the possible adverse effects of methamphetamine use, the prevalence of which is increasing in our country, when treating those with COVID-19.

Other risks for people with substance use disorders include decreased access to health care, housing insecurity, and greater likelihood for incarceration. Limited access to health care places people with addiction at greater risk for many illnesses, but if hospitals and clinics are pushed to their capacity, it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment for COVID-19. Homelessness or incarceration can expose people to environments where they are in close contact with others who might also be at higher risk for infections. The prospect of self-quarantine and other public health measures may also disrupt access to syringe services, medications, and other support needed by people with OUD.

We know very little right now about COVID-19 and even less about its intersection with substance use disorders. But we can make educated guesses based on past experience that people with compromised health due to smoking or vaping and people with opioid, methamphetamine, cannabis, and other substance use disorders could find themselves at increased risk of COVID-19 and its more serious complications—for multiple physiological and social/environmental reasons. The research community should thus be alert to associations between COVID-19 case severity/mortality and substance use, smoking or vaping history, and smoking- or vaping-related lung disease. We must also ensure that patients with substance use disorders are not discriminated against if a rise in COVID-19 cases places added burden on our healthcare system.

As we strive to confront the major health challenges of opioid and other drug overdoses—and now the rising infections with COVID-19—NIDA encourages researchers to request supplements that will allow them to obtain data on the risks for COVID-19 in individuals experiencing substance use disorders.

Vulnerable Populations

The most vulnerable to Covid-19 among substance abuses is going to be the crack-smoking homeless. The homeless are vulnerable just by being homeless, but add to that the lung damage from smoking crack and the risk is compounded. As Dr. Volkow points out, tobacco and marijuana smoking are also more prevalent among those who are homeless. This is going to be an important area of research.

 

Connections between Sleep and Substance Use Disorders

From the Monthly Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow,
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

Original Date March 9, 2020

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Most common mental disorders, from depression and anxiety to PTSD, are associated with disturbed sleep, and substance use disorders are no exception. The relationship may be complex and bidirectional: Substance use causes sleep problems; but insomnia and insufficient sleep may also be a factor raising the risk of drug use and addiction. Recognizing the importance of this once-overlooked factor, addiction researchers are paying increased attention to sleep and sleep disturbances, and even thinking about ways to target sleep disruption in substance use disorder treatment and prevention.

We now know that most kinds of substance use acutely disrupt sleep-regulatory systems in the brain, affecting the time it takes to fall asleep (latency), duration of sleep, and sleep quality. People who use drugs also experience insomnia during withdrawal, which fuels drug cravings and can be a major factor leading to relapse. Additionally, because of the central role of sleep in consolidating new memories, poor quality sleep may make it harder to learn new coping and self-regulation skills necessary for recovery.

The neurobiological mechanisms linking many forms of drug use and sleep disturbances are increasingly well understood. Dopamine is a neurochemical crucial for understanding the relationship between substance use disorders and sleep, for example. Drugs’ direct or indirect stimulation of dopamine reward pathways accounts for their addictive properties; but dopamine also modulates alertness and is implicated in the sleep-wake cycle. Dopaminergic drugs are used to treat disorders of alertness and arousal such as narcolepsy. Cocaine and amphetamine-like drugs (such as methamphetamine) are among the most potent dopamine-increasing drugs, and their repeated misuse can lead to severe sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation in turn downregulates dopamine receptors, which makes people more impulsive and vulnerable to drug taking.

In addition to their effects on dopamine, drugs also affect sleep through their main pharmacological targets. For instance, marijuana interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system by binding to cannabinoid receptors; this system is involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle (among many other roles). Trouble sleeping is a very common symptom of marijuana withdrawal, reported by over 40 percent of those trying to quit the drug; and sleep difficulty is reported as the most distressing symptom. (Nightmares and strange dreams are also reported.) One in ten individuals who relapsed to cannabis use cited sleep difficulty as the reason.

Opioid drugs such as heroin interact with the body’s endogenous opioid system by binding to mu-opioid receptors; this system also plays a role in regulating sleep. Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams, gave his name to morphia or morphine, the medicinal derivative of opium. Natural and synthetic opioid drugs can produce profound sleepiness, but they also can disrupt sleep by increasing transitions between different stages of sleep (known as disruptions in sleep architecture), and people undergoing withdrawal can experience terrible insomnia. Opioids in brainstem regions also control respiration, and when they are taken at high doses they can dangerously inhibit breathing during sleep.

Addiction and sleep problems are intertwined in other, unexpected and complex ways. In a particularly fascinating finding published in Science Translational Medicine in 2018, a team of UCLA researchers studying the role of the wakefulness-regulating neuropeptide orexin in narcolepsy were examining human postmortem brain samples and found a brain with significantly more orexin-producing cells; this individual, they then learned, had been addicted to heroin. This serendipitous discovery led the team to analyze a larger sample of brain hypothalamic tissue from individuals with heroin addiction; these individuals had 54 percent more orexin-producing cells in their brains than non-heroin users. Administering morphine produced similar effects in rodents.

Further research on the overlaps between the brain circuits and signaling systems responsible for reward and those regulating sleep may help us understand individual differences in susceptibility to addiction and sleep disorders. I believe that the future of addiction treatment lies in approaches that are more personalized and multidimensional, and this includes using combinations of medications and other interventions that target specific symptoms of the disorder. It could prove very useful to target an individual’s sleep problems as one of the dimensions of treatment. For example, NIDA is currently funding research to test the efficacy of suvorexant, an FDA-approved insomnia medication that acts as an antagonist at orexin receptors, in people with opioid use disorder.

The causal relationship between impaired sleep and drug misuse/addiction can also go in the other direction. People who suffer insomnia may be at increased risk for substance use, because sufferers may self-medicate their sleep problems using alcohol or other drugs such as benzodiazepines that they may perceive as relaxing. Or, they may use stimulant drugs to compensate for daytime fatigue caused by lost sleep. Impaired sleep may also increase risk of drug use through other avenues, for instance by impairing cognition. Consequently, sleep disorders and other barriers to getting sufficient sleep are important factors to target in prevention.

Early school start times, for instance, have been the focus of considerable debate in recent years, as teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to the many health and behavioral effects of short sleep duration. Fewer hours of sleep correlate with increased risk of substance use and other behavior problems in teens. In this age group, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use are all associated with poorer sleep health, including lower sleep duration, again with possible bidirectionality of causation.

Longitudinal research is needed to better clarify the complex causal links between sleep, brain development, and mental health outcomes including substance use. The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is examining these relationships in a large cohort of children who were recruited at age 9-10. This longitudinal study, now in its third year, is already beginning to produce valuable findings. A team of Chinese researchers using ABCD data recently published in Molecular Psychiatry their finding that kids with depressive problems had shorter sleep duration 1 year later, as well as lower volume of brain areas associated with cognitive functions like memory. We will learn much more as the ABCD study progresses.

Despite all we are learning, more research is needed on the relationship(s) between drug use, addiction, and sleep, in adults as well as young people. NIDA is currently funding several projects to study various substance use disorders and sleep, as well as the neurobiology of reward and its relation to circadian rhythms. It is an area with great potential to prevent substance use as well as to treat one of the most debilitating side effects associated with substance use disorders.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

You can also find help through Narcotics Anonymous at 844-335-2408.

NIDA 2019 Achievements

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow,
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

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Original Date January 24, 2020

As NIDA sets its sights on new goals and objectives for 2020 and beyond, I like to reflect on how far we have come in our research efforts, especially as they concern the opioid crisis, one of the biggest public health issues of our era. Although deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to rise, glimmers of hope are starting to appear. Provisional numbers show that overall overdose deaths have held steady rather than increasing since 2018, and a massive federal investment toward finding scientific solutions to the crisis promises to further turn the tide against opioid and other drug use disorders.

The biggest news of the past year is the grant awards in the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM. In Fiscal Year 2019, 375 grants, contracts, supplements, and cooperative agreements totaling $945 million were awarded in 41 states. As part of this aggressive, trans-agency effort, NIDA is funding research on prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder, including developing new treatments and expanding access to those that already exist.

The HEALing Communities Study led by NIDA in close partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is testing the implementation of an integrated array of evidence-based practices in various healthcare, behavioral health, justice, and community settings in 67 hard-hit communities across four states. Objectives of the study include increasing the number of people with OUD receiving medications for their disorder, increasing naloxone distribution to help reverse opioid overdoses, and reducing high-risk opioid prescribing, with the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent in those communities over of the next three years. Effective strategies learned from this project can then be exported to other communities.

Other HEAL projects are aimed at finding ways to address the prevention and treatment needs of the most at-risk populations. Grants to 12 institutions as part of the Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) will create a network of researchers in 15 states and Puerto Rico to study ways to scale up and disseminate evidence-based interventions in a population with extremely high rates of OUD and overdoses, including evaluating the use of the different medications for OUD in jails and prisons as well as in parolees suffering from OUD. In a separate set of projects, NIDA is funding research aimed at preventing the transition from opioid use to OUD in young adults, including projects targeting rural and American/Indian communities.

NIH HEAL money has also allowed NIDA to greatly expand our Clinical Trials Network and, in partnership with other Institutes, is additionally partially supporting pilot studies in preparation for a large-scale study of brain health and development across the first decade of life. The HEALthy Brain and Child Development (hBCD) study, along with the already-underway Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study (not funded through HEAL), will contribute in innumerable ways to our understanding of brain development and the many factors influencing risk and resilience for substance use during childhood and adolescence.

Science Highlights

In 2019, researchers at NIDA-funded Yale University made significant strides toward understanding biological predictors of addiction and relapse. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and machine learning, Sarah W. Yip and colleagues found that functional connectivity among a number of brain regions predicted chances of achieving abstinence in patients receiving treatment for cocaine use disorder. Their results, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry last February, could lead to new approaches to treating cocaine addiction by intervening directly in those pathways.

Genetic approaches are also yielding important insights in this area. An analysis of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) published in Nature Genetics last January identified hundreds of gene loci associated with tobacco and alcohol use and related health conditions. Genes involved in dopaminergic, nicotinic, and glutamatergic signaling were among those identified. Another partially NIDA-supported GWAS study published in Nature Neuroscience in July identified an association between expression of the gene for the cholinergic receptor nicotinic α2 subunit with cannabis use disorder in brain tissue from a large Icelandic sample.

NIDA-supported basic science is also shedding important light on opioids and the brain’s opioid signaling systems. Research published in June in ACS Central Science provided new insights while raising new questions about the drug kratom. Its active ingredient mitragynine acts as a weak partial agonist at the mu-opioid receptor (MOR), but new findings by a team that included researchers at Columbia and Memorial Sloan-Kettering found that the drug’s analgesic properties are significantly mediated by a metabolite produced when mitragynine is consumed orally, called 7-hydroxymitragynine. In mice, at least, this compound seems to provide analgesia but with fewer respiratory-depressing and reward-associated side effects than other opioids such as morphine. These findings point toward the potential of this drug in pain research as well as the need for further research on the pharmacology of kratom’s constituents, their toxicity and potential value in the treatment of OUD.

Although the MOR system is most commonly associated with pain and pain relief, other receptors are also involved.  One important dimension of pain is the negative affect commonly associated with it, and NIDA-supported research published in Neuron in March found that the kappa-opioid signaling system, specifically in cells located in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, are involved in processing pain-associated negative affect. This discovery could perhaps provide new targets for treating the emotional distress associated with many pain-associated syndromes.

Other Developments

Translating addiction science into new treatments and treatment tools is another area where NIDA is having an impact. For example, in the past few years, NIDA has been extremely successful in winning interest for biotechnology investment in devices and other products to address the opioid crisis and addiction more generally. Historically, addiction is a market that has scared away pharmaceutical companies and investors, who viewed it as small and risky and one that would not lead to recovery of investment. However,  NIDA’s medication development program expansion along with NIDA’s Office of Translational Initiatives and Program Innovations (OTIPI) are turning this around. OTIPI, which I highlighted previously on this blog, uses a wide array of funding mechanisms to support startups in developing or adapting devices, apps, and other technologies in ways that can better deliver treatment to people with substance use disorders and related conditions.

NIDA science continues to contribute knowledge to help guide policy. One example is from our annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, which in 2019 showed steep increases in the use of vaping devices both for nicotine and for marijuana among teenagers.  The survey also revealed that a large proportion of teens vaped because they liked the taste. When these vaping data (along with those of the National Youth Tobacco Survey) were released last November, it prompted the makers of the popular Juul devices to pull their mint flavored products from the shelves, and it prompted the FDA to finalize their enforcement policy on flavored vaping (e-cigarette) products.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Also, a step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

Narcotics Anonymous National Hotline: 1(877) 276-6883.

2019 Monitoring the Future Survey Raises Worries about Teen Marijuana Vaping

From the monthly blog of Dr. Lora Volkow,
Executive Director
National Institute on on Drug Abuse

Originally posted December 18, 2019

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For the second year in a row, rapid rises in vaping among adolescents are the top story from the Monitoring the Future survey of drug use and attitudes among the country’s 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. What became evident in 2018 was that vaping devices, which have exploded in popularity over the past several years, are now exposing a new generation to nicotine. Those trends continued in 2019, but with the additional concern of a rapid rise in the vaping of marijuana, as well as increases in daily marijuana use in 10th graders.

More than one fifth of high school seniors (20.8 %) reported having vaped marijuana in the past year, as did nearly that same proportion of 10th graders (19.4 %). From 2018 to 2019, the percentage of seniors vaping marijuana in the past month increased from 7.5 percent to 14 percent—the second largest one-year increase in any drug use that has ever been recorded in the 45-year history of the MTF survey. (The first largest increase was nicotine vaping from 2017 to 2018 reported last year.) Among 10th graders, past-month use was 12.6 percent.

Overall, marijuana use has held relatively steady over the past several years despite wider availability and diminished perception of the drug’s harms by this age group (and by the U.S. population more generally). But the increases in vaping of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, are alarming for a number of reasons. For one thing, we don’t yet know if THC’s effects differ when vaped versus when smoked in a traditional fashion or whether the amount of THC that youth are being exposed to differs with these methods.

Also, the students took the survey in January of this year, which was before the alarming news this summer about serious lung illness and a number of deaths (48, as of this writing) in people using vaping devices. Most of the illnesses occurred in people who had vaped THC. It is not known whether the cause may have been contamination in certain black market vape fluids, or some other factor. The CDC has named vitamin E acetate as a chemical of concern in vape fluids, but it is too soon to rule out other chemicals or device attributes that may also contribute to the illnesses.

At this point, we know very little about the health and safety effects of administering THC at high concentrations, and this applies not only to vaping but also to smoking of concentrated THC products and new edible products and beverages coming on the market in states that have legalized marijuana for adult use. Research is urgently needed to answer these questions. However, marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule 1 substance. Scientists face administrative hurdles when studying Schedule 1 substances, and currently there are no provisions allowing federally funded researchers to study marijuana products coming from the black market or even from dispensaries in states where they are permitted to operate. Resolving these research barriers is an urgent priority.

Daily marijuana use has remained steady among 12th graders, at 6.4 percent, but this number conceals a very significant gender difference. Eight percent of male seniors report using marijuana daily, whereas 4.6 percent of females do. This suggests that a disproportionate percentage of male students may not be performing to their potential because of daily impairment by that drug.

Increased daily marijuana use by younger teens is another worrying trend in this year’s survey results. This year, 4.8 percent of 10th graders reported daily marijuana use, as did 1.3 percent of 8th graders. The brain is very much a work in progress throughout adolescence, and this is especially true at younger ages, so there is increased risk of long-term harms as well as addiction when 8th and 10th graders use any substance, including marijuana.

The continued increase in nicotine vaping by adolescents is also concerning. A quarter of 12th graders reported past-month vaping of nicotine, as did nearly 20 percent of 10th graders and nearly 10 percent of 8th graders. It is not yet leading to increased cigarette use in this age group—one of the many bright spots in this year’s survey is continued downward trends in smoking—but many public health experts worry that vaping will lead to nicotine addiction in many users of these devices.

The number of 12th graders who vape because they say they are “hooked” more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, from 3.6 percent to 8.1 percent. Addiction to nicotine could lead some users to switch to conventional cigarettes—a trajectory already found in some studies. Another noteworthy statistic in the MTF findings is that teens’ second most cited reason for vaping was liking the taste—a strong argument in favor of limiting the flavorings in vape products as a way of limiting these products’ tremendous appeal.

Apart from the real concerns linked to marijuana and nicotine vaping, the general picture painted by the MTF survey continues to be largely encouraging, however. Most illicit drug use continues to decline or hold steady at low levels. Cocaine and methamphetamine use are as low as they have ever been despite increases seen in adults. Nonmedical use of prescription opioids, which had raised worries several years ago in this survey, is also way down. And thankfully, the crisis of heroin use that continues unabated in U.S. adults also does not seem to be affecting high school students—heroin use continues to be very rare among teens surveyed, with past year use among high-school seniors at 0.4 percent. The fact that MTF is a survey of students in school is important to remember, however. It necessarily does not sample from those who have dropped out of school, and thus misses capturing a segment of the youth population for whom drug use is likely more prevalent.

See all the findings of the 2019 MTF survey, our press release, fact sheet and two infographics on vaping and other drug categories. For more information on the increases in marijuana vaping and what they mean, read the research letter published today in JAMA.

The MTF survey is a valuable indicator of substance use trends in the segment of the population most vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of drug exposure. It is also the most “real-time” survey of drug use patterns: Every January, 42,531 students in 396 public and private schools across the nation take an hour or so to complete the MTF questionnaire—increasingly, on tablets rather than on paper—and the results are tabulated and analyzed by the end of that same year. It gives the NIDA-funded researchers at the University of Michigan, currently led by Richard A. Miech, an unprecedented ability to track substance use in real time.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.