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University of Utah researchers part of $50M commitment to ‘untangle addiction’

Jun 03, 2024 11:19AM ● By Bailey Chism

Dr. Brian Mickey’s University of Utah research team will use an ultrasound device to modulate deep brain areas to change the symptoms of addiction. (Photo courtesy of Brian Mickey)

Worldwide, someone dies from drug or alcohol addiction every four minutes. Now, a group of University of Utah researchers, led by a professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, have been selected to develop a new treatment for substance abuse disorder as part of a $50-million commitment by Wellcome Leap. 

Wellcome Leap is a United States based nonprofit organization founded by the Wellcome Trust to accelerate and increase the number of breakthroughs in global health. 

The team, with expertise in psychiatry, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, radiology and social work, will work to research a new, noninvasive treatment for addiction. The research will be funded by the Untangling Addiction program. The university is among 14 teams globally working to develop scalable measures to assess addiction susceptibility, quantify the risks stemming from addiction and develop innovative treatments. 

Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Dr. Brian Mickey said, “Substance use disorder is a significant global health problem, and yet the treatment options are limited. We’re developing a non-invasive intervention for preventing and treating addiction, chronic pain, and depression. This funding will help us validate and generate the data to support the next critical step: an efficacy trial to determine the effectiveness of the intervention.” 

Mickey’s team will use an ultrasound-based device to help regulate deep brain regions and behaviors associated with opioid addiction. The goal will be to ultimately develop the approach into an individually targeted therapeutic intervention for a range of addictions. 

“We have been working on a new brain stimulation method for the past few years,” Mickey said. “And it seems to have promising effects in the vein [of] conditions like depression. And so we decided that addiction was another good potential application.”

Mickey said it’s difficult to get to the deep brain regions because the skull generally blocks ultrasound, but they have a new method that allows them to essentially get through that block. 

According to Wellcome Leap, 108 million people globally are estimated to be addicted to alcohol. Nearly 40 million people worldwide are addicted to illicit drugs. 

Despite increases in spending on drug abuse prevention and treatment, there have been rising rates of alcohol and drug abuse, according to Wellcome Leap. 

“In 2019, alcohol use disorder (AUD) killed 168,000 people worldwide and was a risk factor in an additional 2.44 million deaths,” said Wellcome Leap’s Untangling Addiction website. “In the same year, substance use disorder (SUD)—partly defined by continued use of substances despite negative consequences—killed over 128,000 people worldwide. And the numbers are getting worse.” 

Worldwide efforts intended to reduce and treat addiction have been ineffective primarily because “only a fraction of people with addictions get treatment and treatment approaches are one-size-fits-all with minimal, if any, matching of treatment to the underlying physiology of the person with addiction.”

And there are no standard relapse prevention programs with the result that more than half of those treated to achieve substance abstinence revert back to their addiction within 90 days. 

“Addictions are brain illnesses that have enormous negative impacts on individuals, families and society,” Mickey said. “A major reason that addictions have been difficult to prevent—and treat—is that they are driven by dysfunction of deep brain regions that are challenging to access. Many psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction are caused by malfunction of brain circuits. This project is an example of our mission to understand how these neural circuits are dysregulated and to develop novel, circuit-targeted interventions that return the brain to a healthy state.”

Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO of Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said the research is especially impactful because “it brings together a variety of disciplines to help solve complex problems in mental health.”

The research Mickey and his team are doing is expected to be a three-year project. That would give them the time to show that their device can engage some of the “deep gray areas and alter the symptoms of addiction.” If they can show the initial signals that they can modulate the behavior and brain areas underlying addiction, they would move on to test the effectiveness in a more clinical setting. λ