"NOVA: Addiction" Investigates the Science of Addiction and New Discoveries about the Brain

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15 October 2018
NOVA: Addiction
Courtesy of WGBH Education Foundation/PBS
"NOVA: Addiction"
Premieres Wednesday, October 17, 2018 at 9PM ET on PBS 
(Check your local listings)

        We are in the midst of the deadliest drug epidemic in US history. In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, driven by a dramatic rise in the abuse of opioids like OxyContin, heroin, and fentanyl. Drugs are now the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50, and a key reason that life expectancy in the US is falling after decades of gains. It’s a slow-motion disaster that is destroying families and entire communities, with no end in sight. But what causes addiction, and why is it so challenging to treat? 

        NOVA takes an unflinching look at the science of addiction and how it works—traveling across the country to hear firsthand from individuals and families struggling with addiction and meet with researchers on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. While addiction has long been viewed as a moral failing, leading scientists will help viewers understand why addiction is a disorder that occurs as drugs profoundly alter the brain. As researchers gather scientific and clinical evidence, ADDICTION will explore how we might best address our drug problem, from advances in neuroscience, to the development of evidence-based treatments, to the rethinking of laws and public policies.  


        In ADDICTION, NOVA brings viewers on both a scientific investigation and an emotional personal journey—looking at the epidemic through the eyes of those living through it. In West Virginia, we meet Jasen and Mark Edwards, brothers from a rural coal mining community whose entire family has been devastated by the opioid crisis. NOVA also travels to California to meet “opioid refugee” Casey Greer, a young woman with a genetic vulnerability who inadvertently became addicted to prescription painkillers as a teenager following surgery to remove a benign tumor. In Vancouver, we’re introduced to Daniel, who turned to drugs to cope with the stress of prison. NOVA also spends time with a young mother striving to stay in recovery and reconnect with her young children in the foster care system, and takes viewers inside a neo-natal ward to see one of the most heartbreaking results of the epidemic. Every 22 minutes, a baby is born dependent on drugs. Dr. Stefan Maxwell, of Charleston Area Medical Center, cares for newborns with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and shares what the babies endure while going through the long and costly withdrawal process.

Courtesy of WGBH Education Foundation/PBS
          Some families are coping with a loved one’s fatal descent into the spiral of addiction. In Virginia, NOVA meets with Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld (USN, Ret.), and his wife, Mary, who recently lost their 19-year-old son Jonathan to an accidental overdose of heroin and fentanyl—just after he had completed 15 months of costly and extensive in-patient rehabilitation and had appeared to be on solid ground. The couple has co-founded S.A.F.E. Project U.S., a nonprofit organization devoted to ending our country’s opioid epidemic.

          Many think addiction is a choice and that stopping is simply a matter of willpower, but it’s much more complicated. ADDICTION shows what it is and what it’s not through a series of experiments and the latest in brain imaging research.
Scientists discovered we have a “reward pathway,” which regulates emotions, movement, motivation, and memory, primarily controlled by a chemical messenger called dopamine. Dopamine is released when we eat, fall in love, or encounter anything exciting. Addictive drugs can cause an unnatural rise in dopamine levels, generating one of the most powerful experiences our brains can have.

          For doctors like Dr. Corey Waller, of the National Center for Complex Health, the problem is that addiction is not handled like other diseases. He is a proponent of building a stabilized, evidence-based treatment system for addiction to intervene on the front end, rather than trying to fix everything that’s broken on the back end. He maintains that this will bring down the number of overdose fatalities and could also serve to bring down the high cost of medicine associated with drug, alcohol, nicotine addiction, and eating disorders—all of which account for a large portion of annual healthcare costs. 
Courtesy of WGBH Education Foundation/PBS
         Currently, abstinence-based methods modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step recovery program are prevalent in about 80% of American treatment centers. These can be effective tools for breaking isolation, providing peer support, and tackling addictions like alcoholism. However, this approach has been shown to be unsuccessful in treating people with an opioid use disorder. Growing evidence suggests that a more effective strategy for combatting opioid addiction is medically assisted treatment, which serves to normalize brain functions altered by opioids, including dopamine levels. Drugs like Methadone and Suboxone (a less potent medication that only partially activates the body’s opioid receptors) block the effects of heroin and pain pills, and decrease cravings.

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