NSF grant enables innovative research to combat addiction and facilitate recovery

Opioid use disorder is one of the leading public health problems in the United States. Dessa Bergen-Cico has spent her career fighting addiction and finding solutions that work.

“Trauma, stress and addiction are related. To make sustainable recovery from addiction, we need to help people understand what they are feeling, what is contributing to their stress, and learn healthy ways to regulate emotions, ”she says.

This Bergen-Cico

Bergen-Cico is a professor in the Public Health Department at Falk College. There she coordinates the addiction research course. She is also a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.

The relapse rate and the cost to people in recovery are high, with great risk of fatal overdose. Opioids create physical dependence and change people’s brains in terms of processing reward and motivation, self-regulation, and responding to stress. Even years after stopping drug use, stress and anxiety can trigger the urge to use opioids and other drugs.

Research has found that mindfulness-based strategies can prevent relapse and promote sustainable recovery. “We’re trying to show how and why it works. Our preliminary research, funded by two Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) grants, measured changes in neural correlates associated with stress addiction and trauma, ”says Bergen-Cico. “With a relatively short training period, we noticed significant changes in key areas of the brain in terms of attention, working memory and emotional regulation.” Neural correlates are brain activities that correspond to certain regions of the brain and are connected to similar brain functions.

“The results of both CUSE scholarships have helped identify how and why mindfulness can help change the stress responses that can lead to the development of addiction and an increased risk of relapse. We used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) sensors to measure areas of the brain that regulate the ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signals that contribute to addiction. Using the data from the fNIRS sensors, we were able to identify patterns of change in brain regions associated with the stress response. The data from the fNIRS sensors enabled us to measure significant changes in the participants in the mindfulness intervention study who were present before changes in self-reporting measures, ”says Bergen-Cico.

Now she’s working with Asif Salekin, Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Computer Science Department, and a larger team from Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to validate whether they can reliably predict the stress response in a larger group of participants. “By comparing the results of three cohorts and interventions, we hope to find out whether raising participants’ awareness of the physiological stress response can lead them to interrupt the stress cycle with mindfulness and other cognitive behavioral techniques,” says Bergen-Cico. “The National Science Foundation Award will fund this phase of research.”

“Falk College faculty scientific research aims to better understand individual and community health in order to develop stronger, more effective interventions and systems,” said Diane Lyden Murphy, dean of Falk College. In addition, the Falk Faculty is integrating new research and theory into the classroom, preparing students for successful careers as affiliated health workers, social service managers, policy makers and lawyers. The ongoing NSF-sponsored study on addiction healing by Professor Bergen-Cico and her colleagues shows both the need for research in areas such as addiction, trauma and mindfulness, as well as the enormous potential of research to inform policy and practice and our wider spectrum to improve health as a population. “

“Our ultimate hope is that we can provide a sustainable recovery tool that gives people insight into their own physiological and psychological reactivity to stress and life outside of a structured rehabilitation environment,” says Bergen-Cico. “We know that consistent application of these techniques over time can help maintain people’s abstinence. If we can develop a portable or home monitoring device that predictably detects the stress responses that lead to food cravings and then indicates the use of cognitive and mindfulness techniques, it could be an important tool for sustainable recovery from addiction. “

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