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Understanding Substance Abuse and Helping Conquer Addiction for 75 Years

4-14-14

By Ken Branson for Rutgers Today

Seventy-five years ago, a person who suffered from alcoholism and consulted a doctor would probably have been sent to Alcoholics Anonymous.

At the time, “there weren’t very many weapons in the medical arsenal to treat alcohol dependency,” says Robert Pandina, director of the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers.

That’s no longer true, and the center can take considerable credit for the change. Since 1939, its researchers have contributed to the scientific understanding of alcohol’s effects on the body and mind, and on the social and psychological effects of alcohol dependency — and increasingly, dependency on drugs, including prescription medication.

With its Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the center has provided a place where researchers from all over the world can publish their studies. The center, which came to Rutgers from Yale in 1962, continues to offer educational opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and treatment to people suffering from substance abuse.

When the center launched, there was a lot of lore about alcohol abuse, but not much science, according to Pandina. Scientific journals in the United States were reluctant to publish research on alcoholism because it was considered a social and moral issue, not a medical one. Scholarly journals published on the topic in Europe, mainly Scandinavia, but they were physically and linguistically inaccessible to those in the United States.

Treatment was only slightly more accessible. The wealthy in this country could go to one of a few private clinics for detox, which favored “cold turkey” treatment or giving patients steadily decreasing amounts of alcohol, Pandina says. In Europe, the clinics practiced aversion therapy — which involved giving a patient a drink followed by an electrical shock or a drug that would cause vomiting upon drinking.

In 2007, the Journal of Studies on Alcohol became the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, reflecting an increasing focus among substance use researchers on drugs other than alcohol.

To Pandina, the launch of a journal dedicated to the study of drug and alcohol abuse is one of the center’s most crucial accomplishments. “Without the journal, there would be no alcohol studies field,” he says.

Over the years, center faculty have served as consultants and experts for programs working to battle addiction, including the World Health Organization. Center staff also helped develop the federal legislation that created the National Alcohol Research Center Program. “Since our arrival at Rutgers in 1962, we’ve trained more than 40,000 people in alcohol studies at every level — counselors, physicians and scientists,” Pandina says.

The center has influenced national policy and public attitudes toward alcohol and drugs. Center faculty and staff were involved in the formation of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is now part of the National Institutes of Health. “That helped raise the status of the scientific study of alcoholism to that of the scientific study of other diseases,” Pandina says.

Faculty and staff affiliated with the center include psychologists, biologists and neuroscientists “all trying to knit their understanding of how addiction works together for the benefit of people afflicted by alcohol and drug abuse and their families,” Pandina says.

Today, the center’s main priority is to bridge the gap between the accumulation of research findings, and the application of those findings, to the prevention and treatment of addiction to alcohol and drug abuse and addiction. “Alcohol, drug abuse and related problems are human problems,” Pandina says. “Our scientific efforts are broad-based but our aim is to translate them all into action.”