Psychology course examines neurological effects of opioids

by Sungil Ahn | 4/28/17 2:10am

An opioid epidemic is spreading throughout New Hampshire, taking more than 1,600 lives since 2012 and increasing in severity. The epidemic has been exacerbated in the past three years by the explosive growth of the use of fentanyl, a synthetic, highly potent opioid. In response, psychology professor Jibran Khokhar teaches the class Psychology 50.09, “Motivation, Drugs and Addiction,” which aims to discredit misinformation about the epidemic, provide possible solutions and address the local community’s concerns.

Khokhar said the epidemic has had a devastating impact on the communities it has affected.

“Even at the [Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center] hospital, more and more children are born with opioid withdrawal as a result of their mothers still being addicted to opioids during pregnancies,” Khokhar said. “The opioid treatment center at Dartmouth has their hands full dealing with addiction.”

Khokhar’s class focuses on the neuroscience of drugs and addiction. For its final project, the students can apply the contents of the course to real-life phenomena to help create social change. When Khokhar gave choices for the final project to the students, they unanimously chose to tackle New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic.

“It is a local problem,” Khokhar said. “The project gives them something to give back to the community they’ve been living in the past few years.”

Simone Schmid ’17, a student in the class, said the course made her realize the severity of the epidemic.

“I come from a background where drugs aren’t really a thing, and there wasn’t even alcohol in the home, so it’s interesting to see how big the [population affected by the epidemic] is,” she said.

The class will produce data-driven reports of the epidemic and potential strategies to combat it, with focus on strong evidence, scientific integrity and public policy. Some students’ ideas include creating clean injection sites and reducing the number of prescription opioids given out by hospitals and insurance companies.

Schmid said such projects are exactly what the community needs.

To make the project outcome more relevant to the community, Schmid reached out to Ashley Doolittle, associate director of academic and service engagement at the Dartmouth Center for Service, and convinced her that the class would be a good fit for the center’s Social Impact Practicum. This practicum matches the community’s needs with students’ expertise, usually by reaching out to the center’s community partners and listening to their needs first, then looking through the courses to see which would be the best fit, Doolittle said.

However, this time, Doolittle worked backwards to find organizations whose needs would fit the course’s final projects. She contacted affiliates within DHMC that might benefit from the course’s work, including All Together, an Upper Valley organization that aims to reduce the impact of substance misuse.

All Together wants to continue its emphasis of the epidemic as a public health crisis, which it could not do previously without robust data about the epidemic in New Hampshire, she said.

Doolittle added that All Together will use the course’s detailed reports of the epidemic to corroborate its cause, and that it will be especially helpful if the severity of the epidemic is conveyed in these reports.

In addition, All Together wants to look at treatment and resources for those who have recovered from addiction to ensure they do not relapse, because there is usually a lack of follow-up after treatments, Doolittle said.

Khokhar and Schmid said they did not expect to get in touch with DHMC, and Khokhar said the connection to the organizations gave the class an opportunity to use its material for practical purposes. He noted that he does not want the class to produce redundant material that already exists and wants students to approach the issue from a new perspective.

He said the ultimate goal of the project is to eliminate misinformation about the epidemic through corrective information and scientific discourse.

“The goal is to take all of what we know about the brain and consider the drugs’ societal implications and also give some of the information back,” Khokhar said.

He hopes that such information will help the community understand the dangers of alternative opioids, such as fentanyl, and dispel misconceptions.

The class is researching the effects of drugs on the brain, specifically which neurological circuits and receptors are affected. Khokhar said he hopes that by researching such information, the class will be able to show that addiction is a disease of the brain and reduce the stigma associated with addiction.

If such goals are achieved, the class will be helping DHMC form a new narrative of the opioid crisis and find the best way to support people who are struggling after treatment, he said.

Correction Appended (April 28, 2017): This article previously stated that the course was new and Khokhar started the course, when in fact the course had already existed before but is now being taught by Khokhar. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.