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Psychologists Land NIH Grant for Study of Drug Addiction

By Adrienne Frank

Photo: Stan Weiss and David Kearns

Stan Weiss, left, and David Kearns (Photo: Jeff Watts)

With the five-year renewal of a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health, psychologists Stan Weiss and David Kearns will receive $300,000 a year to continue their research on environmental stimuli that elicit cravings in drug users.

Weiss and Kearns, CAS/PhD ’05, who have been working on the research for more than a decade, saw a 60 percent increase in funding with the renewal of the R01 grant, NIH’s largest and most competitive award.

“In a sense, we’re the 100:1 long shot in the Kentucky Derby,” said Kearns of the grant, which is frequently awarded to Ivy League universities and large research institutions. “We’re the stable with two horses, competing against all the big players.”

Of the more than 500 R01 grant proposals received by NIH, Weiss and Kearns’s was ranked in the 88th percentile based on five criteria, including innovation and public health relevance.

“When you’re up for renewal, it’s not just what you propose to do, but what you’ve done to this point that matters,” said Weiss. “We’re building upon a strong foundation.”

To this point, the pair has studied drug-seeking behaviors in rats and tested treatments to curb their cocaine addiction. They’ve also examined how environmental conditions can influence the degree to which the rats will crave the drugs.

Based on their work in the lab, for example, they’ve inferred that an addict might not need a fix until he sees a crack pipe or someone else shooting up. “The influence of these environmental conditions can result in a complete loss of control,” and cause recovering addicts to relapse, said Weiss.

Now the researchers will focus on “deepening the extinction” of these environmental cues, thereby eliminating cravings. They also hope to partner with clinicians and “translate” their research for human use.

Ultimately, Weiss and Kearns hope their research will lead to the development of better drug rehabilitation programs.

“There’s no effective treatment for cocaine—that says a lot about the power of addiction,” said Kearns. “Finding a treatment is sort of like the search for the Holy Grail.”