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Understanding Adolescent Drug Abuse

Andrew Merluzzi

Andrew Merluzzi and Professor Tony Riley conducting research in the Psychopharmacology Laboratory.

Andrew Merluzzi, BA psychology ’13, sees psychology as the key to unlocking a world of information about human beings. “Psychology is really one of the newest academic disciplines, and one that I think does not garner as much credit as is deserved.” says Merluzzi. “Understanding human cognition, emotions, and behavior is the most fundamental step towards understanding the self.” Merluzzi’s passion for this understanding recently resulted in his earning the Best Poster Award at the Georgetown University Undergraduate Research conference, an annual conference open to all consortium university students. Merluzzi won the award for the research he has conducted in AU’s Psychopharmacology Laboratory.

“As an undergraduate, this conference offered a great opportunity to explain my research to a wide audience,” says Merluzzi. “I believe that everyone can be interested in science, and that it just needs to be presented in a way that is not overwhelming.”

For the purposes of this research, Merluzzi focused on the aversive properties of morphine use—the properties that limit intake of the drug. Comparing aversive properties of drug use among both adult and adolescent rats, Merluzzi discovered that adolescents find morphine less aversive than adults. “Given that most drug use in humans is initiated in adolescence,” says Merluzzi, “it is important to study how adolescents react to a drug. From these findings it is becoming increasingly clear that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to drug dependence and addiction.”

As a result of his research, as well as that conducted by others, Merluzzi asserts that traditional drug education may not be effective in preventing the abuse of drugs by adolescents. “It is clear that effective prevention programs should be used to inform children that they are especially susceptible to drugs,” he says. “The ‘Just Say No’ policy was completely unsuccessful; this research could be the basis for more effective programs.”

Merluzzi wasn’t the only AU community member to walk away from the conference with an award. AU psychology department chair Anthony Riley was this year’s recipient of the conference’s Allan Angerio, PhD Award for Excellence in Faculty Mentorship. Merluzzi nominated Riley for this award after working in his lab the past two years. “Dr. Riley has been an invaluable resource both within the lab and as an advisor,” says Merluzzi. “He is always available to answer questions and does so with zeal unlike that of any other professor. His love of science and psychology permeates the lab, fostering an environment in which simple curiosity is regarded as the highest of qualities.”

“Learning about the neurobiological basis that drives behavior is in a lot of ways the ‘final frontier’ of psychology,” says Merluzzi. “If we can understand how the brain functions and how it mediates normal behavior, we will then be able to understand how to remedy behavioral pathologies with pharmacological intervention. Research is becoming more abundant and we are improving our medications for psychological disorders, but we still have a long way to go.”