Teaching the science of addiction

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Dr. Kate McDonnell-Dowling, fulbright scholar, speaks about addiction, with a focus on drug abuse during pregnancy, at the Neuroscience and Addiction lecture March 3 in Moody. McDonnell-Dowing has been speaking about this topic for seven years, because she wanted to create an awareness of drug abuse. Photo by Deandra Gonzalez

Fulbright Scholar describes the impact unchecked drug abuse can have on offspring.

By Austin P. Taylor


In 2006, studies showed that 5.2 percent of pregnant women in America were abusing methamphetamine, a visiting Fulbright Scholar said during a lecture March 3 in Moody Learning Center.

“These numbers are troubling, and I don’t think these mothers knew how it would impact their children,” Kate McDonnell-Dowling told an audience of 23 individuals.

McDonnell-Dowling is a neuropharmacology Ph.D. from the National University of Ireland, Galway; she is conducting research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., on addiction and its effects on maternal behavior patterns.

This college’s human services program and Coordinator Edwin Bergen hosted the presentation.

McDonnell-Dowling discussed the drug at the center of her research: methamphetamine, which recently found its way into the public eye thanks to the success of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” a fictional show about a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer, starts cooking meth to build a nest egg for his family and subsequently rises to power in the drug underworld.

“Meth is popular for several reasons,” McDonnell-Dowling said. “It’s easy to produce, can be consumed in a variety of ways, has a relatively low cost, the average high lasts about 12 hours and it has been shown to have anorectic properties.”

A substance with anorectic properties can and will affect one’s ability to regulate his or her weight. Many people who take these drugs lose a significant amount of weight.

What McDonnell-Dowling has found is rather troubling. Meth is primarily abused by adolescents and young adults. Approximately half of known meth users are women, some of whom become pregnant during periods of drug use.

Most of this data is dependent on self-reports, which requires the subject to be candid with the data collectors.

“Most women will be embarrassed to admit drug use,” McDonnell-Dowling said.

Even when a subject is being candid with his or her doctor, there are several confounding factors that need to be taken into account.

“Drug users don’t use one drug exclusively,” McDonnell-Dowling said. “Many also use alcohol and other drugs that we’d have to account for.”

Clinical studies have found that drug use during pregnancy can have severe physical and neurological consequences for newborns.

To get a better look at these symptoms, McDonnell-Dowling has been examining how meth affects rats during maternity.

The study established several test groups. These groups were separated by dosages ranging from nothing to 10 milligrams.

As the study went on, the researchers began to observe noticeable differences between the groups.

The 10-milligram group began eating considerably less than the other groups once meth was introduced. That group also lost 17.6 percent of their pups, while the control group only lost 2.9 percent of its pups. The pups that survived weren’t exactly better off.

The pups from rats that received meth were born with a variety of defects. Many had trouble righting themselves, while others displayed abnormal behavior patterns.

It was actually the female pups that seemed to suffer the greatest amount of physical defects. On the other hand, it was the males that showed differences in their behavior.

The mothers that had been given meth began to show abnormal nursing behaviors. They weren’t nursing their pups properly, nor did they spend any significant amount of time interacting with them.

McDonnell-Dowling introduced her current study on how early life stress can lead adolescents to early drug use. It’s currently focused on how victims of bullying, especially adolescents, can experience increased depression, anxiety and psychiatric illnesses in adulthood and whether this can cause subjects to become dependent on drugs.

“This information was really good,” said Curtis Hollar, an applied sciences sophomore. “Our decisions have an impact on our children, and this is one that’s greater than most.”

The lecture included some background information on the Fulbright Scholarship program.

In 1945, U.S. Sen. James Fulbright introduced a bill to Congress that called for surplus materials from World War II to be sold to fund an international student exchange. The bill, once signed into law, would become the basis of today’s Fulbright program. Today there are more than 294,000 Fulbrighters in the world, and 111,000 are currently in the U.S. The program operates in more than 155 countries worldwide.


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