This week's question is what scientific field I would study, "if time and money were not obstacles." Since I'm not a real scientist - just a science writer - I'm not quite sure how to answer this. I worked for several years in a neuroscience lab, and if I hadn't studied neuroscience I probably would have ended up trying to understand RNA. (Why RNA? Because it does so many inscrutable things, and has been second fiddle to DNA for way too long...In fact, the whole field of epi-genetics strikes me as ripe with promise.)
But I'm going to interpret this question a little differently. I'm going to ask myself what scientific enigma I would study (and hope to solve) if "time and money were not obstacles." My answer to that question is the biology of drug addiction. I won't bother with all the statistics documenting the horrible toll drug addition and alcoholism wreak on our society. (The last government study, done in 2001, estimated the annual cost at $143.4 billion.) But the real reason I would study drug addiction is that I think addiction might actually be a curable condition, ripe for a transformative solution. After all, we have a pretty good understanding of how the dopamine reward pathway works, and it doesn't seem all that farfetched to have a drug that might inhibit it. Furthermore, it now seems that most addictions - from gambling to sex to heroin - all use a similar cortical loop. So if we ever came up with a pharm cocktail that made smoking and cocaine uninteresting, we would also put Las Vegas out of business, not to mention the Taliban. And if I woke up tomorrow, and suddenly had the patience and intelligence required of a good bench scientist, I would start reading up on dopamine, Wolfram Schultz and methamphetamine...
So if we ever came up with a pharm cocktail that made smoking and cocaine uninteresting, we would also put Las Vegas out of business, not to mention the Taliban.
Not to mention most other stimulating activities.
Thanks for your comment. Obviously, we wouldn't put this cure for addiction in the water. After all, I don't mind being addicted to espresso, or episodes of Deadwood. But plently of people are sick of their addictions, and would be thrilled if a drug came out that let them temporarily escape their destructive pangs and urges. Sure, their sex life might suffer, but that seems like a small price to pay in order to quit smoking or crack or slot machines...
I worked on the dopamine system for a few years, and grew more and more skeptical about altering it directly to avoid addictive behaviour (at least in otherwise "normal" individuals). Losing our addictive behavior via the dopamine system would also mess with a whole range of rewarded behaviour - from sex to food. Some neurochemists are working on designing drugs to bind to targets, blocking binding by elicit drugs (nicotine or cocaine) without altering normal function. This is quite possible for cocaine (whose main target functions to transport dopamine), but a little trickier for nicotine (which has many targets whose function is to bind acetylcholine, which is structurally similar to nicotine). This is similar to using methadone for heroin addicts, but the targeting is a little better (since methadone activates heroin receptors).
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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has launched what's being called the first large-scale national study aimed at developing treatments for addiction to prescription pain medications like OxyContin and Vicodin.