Most Americans say they’re interested in scientific discoveries, but they may be thinking of the kinds of findings that lead to new gadgets and wonder drugs. When it comes to discoveries about hazards and risks — especially the risks of those wonder drugs — Americans seem more likely to tune out.
Such ambivalence might help explain how opioid misuse became such a problem in America. Despite 20 years of warnings from scientists about the dangers of addiction, the rate of prescriptions has tripled between 1999 and today. It hit a peak around 2012 and has started to decline slightly, going from 81.2 per 100 people to a still-enormous 70.6 per 100, new data show.
Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for potentially addictive painkillers in 2014 — enough for every adult in the country to have a bottle.
All the while, neuroscientists have found that opioids can cause long-term changes in the brain even after an addicted person experiences the severe nausea and other withdrawal symptoms typically associated with quitting.
That lingering hazard might have given patients and prescribing physicians pause.
But it’s not too late to start listening to scientists. Brain research can help inform policy on how to help the 2 million Americans who are currently addicted to prescription opioids, as well as the 1 million addicted to heroin. Neuroscience “definitely has things to offer helping us understand the reality of the addicted brain,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Stanford University. He and several colleagues urged a greater role for neuroscience in shaping policy in a commentary that ran last month in the journal Science.
Neuroscience research has shown, for example, that addictive drugs can alter the brain circuitry that controls motivation and reward, and they can wreak havoc on the brain’s decision-making center, the prefrontal…