A neuroanthropologist explains what Colombian teenagers can teach us about addiction

Gettinghookedonsin_1 In Scientific American:

LEHRER: One of those concrete problems that you’ve studied is craving. What can neuroanthropology teach us about craving and its most extreme form, addiction?

LENDE: Let’s begin with the neuroscience. In the scientific literature on addiction, dopamine has often been made out as the “bad boy” behind substance abuse. Although dopamine is often associated with the experience of pleasure—it represents “rewards,” such as chocolate cake or crack cocaine—it also helps make us want stuff. Wanting just needs a little push to get to craving.

There is one small problem: much of the dopamine research is done through lab work with rats and monkeys. As I tell my students, that is not the same as getting a late night pizza craving and picking up the phone to dial Dominos.

But I did see in my work with Colombian adolescents that research on incentive motivation and dopamine could help me understand how some adolescents got so deeply involved with drug use.

So I asked myself: How could I put this genuine advance in neuroscience into practice to actually understand people? As with almost all neuroscience research, the results are exciting, but they suffer from a serious translation problem.

This predicament is where neuroanthropology can be so helpful. In order to draw connections between neuroscience and real world situations, I went out and talked to people to understand craving and addiction from their point of view. This type of real-world data can both challenge and inform ideas based on animal models and neuroimaging studies.