BAR HARBOR — “The Genetics of Addiction” will be the topic of a Sept. 9 MDI Science Café presentation by Vivek Kumar, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor who researches behavior and behavioral abnormalities. He uses mouse molecular genetics as a foundation to dissect these complex behaviors in mammals, along with a combination of biochemistry, physiology and imaging techniques.
The MDI science café will be held at 5 p.m. in the Kinne Library at the MDI Biological Laboratory, 159 Old Bar Harbor Road.
The first half of the presentation will focus on the neuroscience of addition and will address such questions as How is addiction defined? What are the underlying neurobiological causes of addiction? Why are some individuals more vulnerable than others? and What can be done to improve the treatment of addiction?
The second half will describe Kumar’s research at The Jackson Laboratory, which uses functional genomics approaches in mice to study motivational reward pathways. The misregulation of these pathways leads to disorders including addiction, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and depression.
The goal of Kumar’s research is to identify genes and related molecular pathways that eventually can be targeted for the treatment and prevention of substance use disorder.
Kumar, whose background is in molecular biology and genetic regulation, said he was drawn to the field of addiction science about 15 years ago because of the importance of this health crisis and the opportunity offered by enhanced knowledge to improve human health and well-being.
In particular, he studies why some mice have a more pronounced response than others to the stimulating effects of cocaine. His lab has also identified a specific gene that appears to regulate addictive responses generally — not only to substances such as opiates and stimulants, but potentially to nicotine, alcohol and even food.
“One of the main messages of my presentation will be that addiction is a chronic brain disease that should be treated as a medical problem — not as a moral or ethical failing,” he said. “One way to overcome the stigma of addiction is to learn more about its genetic and neurobiological basis. The more we know, the less the individual is blamed.”
The state of Maine ranks among the top 10 states with the highest number of deaths involving opioids, according to statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 2017, the most recent year available. The rate was 29.9 deaths per 100,000 persons compared to a national average of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons.
As appalling as these figures are, however, the substance that is most frequently abused across lifespan in Maine is alcohol, with eight percent of adults over 18 at risk from heavy alcohol use, according to a 2014-2015 state report.
The problem of substance abuse in Maine prompted the MDI Biological Laboratory to hold a panel discussion on the opioid crisis earlier this year in conjunction with the University of New England. The goal of the panel, on which Kumar was a panelist, was to build collaborative partnerships to address the multi-faceted problem in an inter-disciplinary, intra-professional way.
“As a society, we know that holistic, evidence-based addiction treatment is effective,” Kumar said. “We just don’t do it because we tend to blame the individuals who are suffering from this condition. We need to treat addiction as a disease and to provide adequate resources to deal with it. One way to accomplish this is by communicating the science of this disease.”
Kumar is an assistant professor in mammalian genetics at The Jackson Laboratory. Prior to assuming his position there, he was an instructor in the department of neuroscience at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the University of California, San Diego in cell and developmental biology.
A frequent speaker on substance abuse, Kumar also serves on the board of directors at the Acadia Family Center, a nonprofit addiction treatment and family counseling facility on Mount Desert Island.
MDI Science Cafés are offered in fulfillment of the institution’s mission to promote scientific literacy and increase public engagement with science. The popular events offer a chance to hear directly from speakers about trends in science. Short presentations delivered in everyday language are followed by lively, informal discussion.
For more information, please visit mdibl.org or call 207-288-3147.
About the MDI Biological Laboratory
We are pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on developing drugs that slow age-related degenerative diseases and activate our natural ability to heal. Our unique approach has identified potential therapies that could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease, muscular dystrophy and more. Through the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation, we are preparing students for 21st century careers and equipping entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to turn discoveries into applications that improve human health and well-being. For more information, please visit mdibl.org.