The science of addiction

Even though the course he teaches for psychology undergraduates is a 500-level elective — in other words, a tough course no one is required to take — Steven Harrod knows the seats will fill.

The course title, Drug Use and Effects, tends to pique students’ interest. But what they encounter is more than they might have bargained for. That’s because the course deals with complex neurochemistry — the nuts and bolts of how drugs act in the brain — and the ethical complexities of drug laws, treatment and enforcement.

A lecture might go into intense detail on how nicotine affects acetylcholine in the brain, then switch gears to delve into the heroin overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman or the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

“I’ve never taken a chemistry course in my life, but I was fascinated by it,” said Stephen Fisher, a psychology senior from Charlotte, N.C. “Dr. Harrod makes the course really relevant by relating it to his research.”

An associate professor of psychology who was named a 2014 Breakthrough Scholar by the University of South Carolina’s Office of Research, Harrod conducts preclinical research on drug addiction and the long-term effects of prenatal exposure to nicotine.

“I’m particularly interested in how that affects later behavior when a person who was exposed to drugs in the womb decides to take a drug of abuse,” he said. “That person is particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted, and I’m looking into the neurobiological underpinnings for why that happens. Perhaps there are biomarkers that might reveal how vulnerable an individual might be to becoming addicted.”

Most students who take the drug effects course arrive with preconceived notions of what triggers drug addiction (in reality, there is no single mechanism in the brain, Harrod says) and how society should deal with drug addicts. After a semester of lectures, class participants begin to grasp the complexity of addiction, the intricate interplay of neurochemicals that fuel a motivational circuit in the brain that’s not unlike the drive for food or sexual behavior.

“We talk about the fact that if drug addiction is a disease, why do we tend to look down on those who are addicted. How is a person's choice to maintain recreational drug use in adolescence influenced if he or she were prenatally exposed to nicotine? It’s an interesting question,” Harrod said.

“And it makes sense to talk about this with high school and college-age students. They need to know their family history because some people are at greater risk than others.”

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