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Global Drug Addiction: A Challenge for Scientists


According to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 200 million illicit drug users in the world. Drug abuse and dependency is a global concern requiring input from scientists around the world. Part of this effort includes understanding what causes dependency in the first place, determining how various substances affect the brain, and developing new products that may reduce the widespread impact addiction can have on all aspects of society.

Finding New Ways to Treat Dependency

Scientists and researchers are always looking for new products and medications that may break the cycle of dependency and minimize withdrawal symptoms. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Zubsolv, a drug developed in Sweden intended for patients dealing with opioid dependence. The main advantage of the drug, which dissolves under the tongue, is that patients can take less of it and still get the same benefits associated with similar medications.

Successful Dependency Medications

Some medications have proven to be successful during different phases of recovery. Methadone, for instance, is frequently used to minimize and prevent withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, the following medications are often used as part of patient treatments worldwide:

  • Naltrexone: Medication used to prevent opioids from affecting certain parts of the brain.
  • Naltrexone Buprenorphine: A drug often used in conjunction with compliance monitoring and behavioral modification programs.
  • Dolophine: A drug shown to be successful in treating heroin addicts.
  • Acamprosate: Often used to treat the long-term effects of withdrawal, such as insomnia and anxiety.

Treating Con-Occurring Conditions

In Europe and the United States, there is a widespread realization that multiple treatments are necessary to address the complex issues of dependency. For this reason, a combination of medications is often used to treat underlying conditions as well as the addictive behavior itself as patients undergo counseling and receive treatments with other therapies. Anxiety and depression in addicts is often treated with serotonin re-uptake inhibitors like Zoloft and Paxil.

Understanding the Biology of Dependency

Over the past few decades, researchers have developed a better understanding of the neurology behind drug dependency, especially when it comes to how such substances affect the brain. Biologically, such substances alter the brain’s communication system, changing how neurons send, receive and process information. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded grants to several research institutes for an extensive study on cognitive development in adolescents to identify factors that may contribute to future drug use.

What’s Known about the Brain and Addiction

It’s becoming increasingly accepted around the world that drug dependency isn’t something that can be shaken with only a strong desire to quit. In reality, the process of overcoming a physical and emotional dependency involves a complex approach to treatment that’s based on what’s already known about how drugs can affect the brain. Such substances can overstimulate the brain’s reward system. Compounds in marijuana and heroin, in particular, can mimic neurotransmitters and trick the brain into sending abnormal messages that may affect behavior.

Most Dangerous Drugs Around the World

There are illicit substances that can impact somebody’s personal and professional life regardless of geographic location. Researchers from around the world are working to determine how such substances become available and what demographics are affected most, with universally dangerous drugs including:

  • Heroin: With side effects that range from cold sweats to muscle weakness, heroin is highly addictive and a growing epidemic in parts of the United States and Russia; although it’s also considered the most abused drug worldwide.
  • Cocaine: Especially prevalent in the United States and Spain, cocaine is dangerous because it comes in various forms and strengths; and it’s been linked to kidney, liver and lung damage.
  • Crystal Meth: Characterized by symptoms ranging from sleep deprivation to brain damage, crystal meth use is a widespread problem throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.
  • Whoonga: A combination of antiretroviral meds used to treat HIV and assorted mixtures, Whoonga is readily available in South Africa; adverse reactions can include stomach ulcers and internal bleeding.

Searching for Opioid Alternatives

Researchers throughout the world are working on viable alternatives to powerful opioids, medications some patients need to manage chronic pain following surgery or while living with conditions such as cancer. OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin are some of the opioids most frequently abused in the United States, where issues with dependency are especially widespread. Early trials on CR845, a peptide drug that only targets specific areas of the brain responsible for the interpretation of pain, have been promising.

Commonly Abused Substances

Drug abuse extends beyond borders. According to stats referenced by WHO and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most commonly abused substances worldwide include:

  • Psilocybin “magic” mushrooms
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • Ecstasy
  • Opium
  • Marijuana

Growing Concerns

Trends in the global drug market are always changing, even when it comes to substances sold legally with a high risk for abuse. Synthetic powders referred to as “bath salts,” made with amphetamine-like chemicals, are a growing concern worldwide. Administered by inhalation, injection or taken orally, bath salts have effects similar to what’s experienced with cocaine. Mephedrone is one variation of the drug that’s especially problematic throughout the United Kingdom. There’s also growing concern globally over:

  • Flakka: A synthetic drug that can cause hallucinations, paranoia and violent outbursts.
  • Krokodil: A potentially deadly codeine knockoff originally seen in Russia and Eastern Europe that’s recently made its way to the United States.
  • Butane Hash Oil: Made with the active ingredient in marijuana, this drug produces a more potent high that could lead to loss of consciousness after inhalation.

The ongoing challenge for scientists is the evolution of the various substances that are readily available globally, especially those that are more potent than mixtures that were prevalent even a decade ago. Education plays an equally important world in fighting the global drug crisis, with increased efforts needed to convince addicts to seek treatment sooner rather than later and reach those who may be at risk for developing a problem before they get into a cycle of dependence and abuse that can make treatment more difficult.


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