Stay up-to-date on the latest and most important addiction research with Research You Can Use, Dr. Mark Gold's weekly analysis of compelling evidence from the field. Dr. Gold is a renowned addiction expert and psychiatrist providing critical expertise on a range of subjects.
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Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are one of the most common and least-treated health conditions in the world. Some AUDs decline in severity or even get better without treatment.1 AUDs often accompany depression, anxiety, fears and phobias, sleep disorders, liver problems, and other diseases. They may be caused by shared genes underlying other psychiatric conditions, especially depression.2 And while there’s a strong genetic component in many AUD cases, there are a host of contributing factors, from cultural and regulatory environments to psychological disposition to brain circuitry and anxiety, that can play important roles in the development of the condition—or, at least, that can play anything from a substantial role to a very limited one. It all depends.
As any patient, involved health care practitioner, and/or expert would be quick to point out, AUD is a highly complicated condition, sometimes frustratingly so. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 6.2 percent of adults over 18 in the U.S. have an AUD, including over 9 million men and 5 million women.3 These numbers can be difficult to gauge in part because of the condition’s complexity—if we had a blood test that a physician could perform or a throat culture that could be sent to the lab, it would establish a diagnosis to everyone’s satisfaction. AUD is the most prevalent substance use disorder in the world, and from a public health perspective, it’s important not to let the complexity of AUD get in the way of sound policies and treatment practices. A comprehensive seminar recently published in The Lancet offered an updated discussion of the state of research on AUD, covering diagnosis, treatment, epidemiology, risk factors, environmental issues, and other considerations, as a guide to what we’ve learned about the condition.
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The French and Italians once blamed each other for the creation of syphilis, officials viewed it as a moral incentive to maintain sexual propriety, and California required cases to be reported by number rather than name to conceal the identities of “ sinful” sufferers.1 The infection often went undetected, causing neurological and psychiatric problems chronicled in the lives of the rich and famous: Eduard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Al Capone, Keats, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, and Oscar Wilde.2 Later, diagnosis and treatment changed. Advances in science and medicine, if not in the reduction of stigma, dramatically cut reported rates of syphilis,3 and public health authorities had major successes in curbing Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) over the second half of the twentieth century. In 2018, 1,306 infants in the United States contracted syphilis, a 185 percent rise since 2014.
The CDC, in a recent report, is now sounding the alarm over astonishingly large increases in the prevalence of STDs. Cases have now increased for the fifth straight year and reached another all-time high. One contributing factor is substance use and substance use disorders (SUDs), which are linked to unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, and other behaviors increasing the risk of STDs. As the CDC predicted, needle use and substance-seeking sex have had major impacts on STD rates: a 2016 report spotlighted 220 counties at elevated risk of HIV from high levels of intravenous drug use. Drinking and use of other substances, which can alter judgment and risk calculations, are also associated with increased chances of contracting STDs.
But in some STD cases, the problem is not a complex one linked to a variety of nuanced and complicatedly intertwined variables. It’s simply a function of not trying. As the CDC’s Director of STD Prevention Gail Bolan notes of infants with syphilis, “This goes beyond data and surveillance, beyond numbers and calculations—we lost 94 lives before they began to an entirely preventable infection.”4
7 min read
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for around 3,000 deaths in 2013—by 2018, they accounted for over 30,000.1 Fentanyl is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine, 50 times more potent than heroin. Breathing can stop after use of just two milligrams of fentanyl. That’s about as much as trace amounts of table salt. “Ten years ago,” write the authors of a recent RAND report on the future of fentanyl, “few would have predicted that illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids from overseas would sweep through parts of Appalachia, New England, and the Midwest.” Drug epidemics and outbreaks can be surprising, taking unexpected forms at unpredictable moments in uncharacteristic patterns. But the fentanyl crisis is different. It isn’t just distressingly surprising or one more deadly drug epidemic in a grueling, tragic history of new contagions. Its magnitude, intensity, and sharp variations dwarf previous epidemics with which experts and officials are familiar, and its challenges for public health are novel and, so far, unmanageable. The recent RAND report is a comprehensive overview of the fentanyl crisis’s origins, present status, and, most disturbingly, future.
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In August, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The release revealed that 14.4 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had a major depressive episode in the past year.1 Major depressive episodes are mental disorders characterized by two-week or longer periods of depressed mood or decreased enjoyment of usual activities, and associated behavioral problems. According to these released figures, 3.5 million, or one-in-seven adolescents had a major depressive episode in the past year. The numbers rose from 2017 when 13.3 percent of adolescents had experienced such an event and were up from 2004 when only 9 percent did. Added to rising suicide rates,2 these numbers raise the alarm of worsening mental health trends among adolescents. The internet and social media appear to play critical roles in spreading suicidal behavior: the effect of suicide clusters, for example, implicates social media.3
While many young Americans face a dizzying array of challenges in their lives—from substance misuse to academic pressures to general fears about societal stability—adolescents in the past have also dealt with these concerns and did not experience a similar rate of depressive episodes. This leads journalists, educators, experts, and politicians looking for a root cause to understand these recent changes, and one major change stands apart from the rest: access to social media. In a recent study, researchers tried to determine whether frequent social media use contributes to negative mental health outcomes among adolescents.
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Cannabidiol (CBD) is a “phytocannabinoid” part of cannabis, or an element created from the cannabis plant. According to a recent New York Times article, “The CBD industry is flourishing, conservatively projected to hit $16 billion in the United States by 2025. Already, the plant extract is being added to cheeseburgers, toothpicks and breath sprays."1 The FDA has approved Epidiolex, a CBD oral solution, for prescriptions to patients two years of age and older to treat certain intense forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome, marking the first official go-ahead for a marijuana-derived substance.2 CBD, in short, makes headlines. Yet some consumers buying a CBD product sold over-the-counter have had difficulty finding a label and knowing what they’re actually getting.3 For other potential consumers, the biggest questions aren’t about a buzzy new wellness trend—they’re about failing a drug test after acquiring impure CBD or THC in a purchase.4
Consumers try to balance these fears with the purported benefits CBD. It is true that Epidiolex has been life-changing for the seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. For parents and children coping with these conditions, all other treatments have failed. CBD may have benefits for other patients with rare or difficult-to-treat neurological diseases. In a recent study, researchers at the University of North Carolina wondered if CBD might help treat individuals with another condition involving severe seizures, Angelman syndrome.