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Grant Funding Continues For UConn Health's Alcohol Research Center

Hartford Courant - 8/7/2019

Aug. 7--The UConn Health alcohol research center in Farmington again received funding from the National Institutes of Health, a continuation of the grant that helped establish the department in 1978.

In June, the research center was awarded a five-year grant worth $7.5 million from the NIH'sNational Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which will ensure funding into the program's 45th year. It's the eighth successful competitive renewal of the grant.

Victor Hesselbrock, a psychiatry professor and director of the alcohol research center, was instrumental in the founding of the center 41 years ago, along with Roger Meyer, the former chair of psychiatry, whose leadership saw the first grant arrive with help from Thomas Babor.

"When the grant was initially submitted, there were very few treatments for alcoholism," Hesselbrock said. "There was one medication. Most people ended up going to AA. That was pretty much the standard of care at that time. If you go back 40 years, looking at it now, it's like a blank slate."

The center played a role in the federal approval of two drugs used to treat chronic alcoholism, naltrexone and acamprosate. There was also the matter of finding behavioral treatments that developed over time.

"We started off with taking AA and taking apart the essential ingredients of that," Hesselbrock said. "Our center was involved in the development of manualized AA and trying to understand what part of that process was important."

Hesselbrock said the center continues to look at behavioral therapies created for conditions like eating disorders and schizophrenia and applying them to addiction. They do the same with medications that were created for something other than treating addiction.

"A lot of these are medications that treat neurological conditions and with a different dose and a different regimen they do seem to impact the person's desire for using different types of drugs," Hesselbrock said.

Lance Bauer, a psychiatry professor and the associate scientific director of the alcohol research center, said the center's goal has long been to study both the cause of alcohol abuse along with how they can best treat it.

"The theme of the center for the longest time is the etiology and treatment of alcohol abuse," Bauer said. "One of the reasons we chose that theme is that there's pretty good research suggesting the risk factors that promote the onset of alcohol dependence also promote recurrence among people who already have the disorder. What we learn about initial risk factors may inform how we treat people who have the disorder."

What's clear to both Hesselbrock and Bauer is that whatever way they choose to treat someone for alcoholism, it can't be one and done.

"One treatment is not going to fix it," Hesselbrock said. "It's not like an infection. Once people leave treatment, these risk factors continue to reemerge. Our thinking is if a patient can recognize those and we can provide them with strategies or medications to help mitigate those, then the course of the illness is that you will be a productive member of society."

Bauer said that the risk for recurrence of an alcohol abuse disorder is around 64 percent for someone who has been abstinent for less than a year. For someone who has been abstinent for one to three years, that number drops to 34 percent.

"We try to help them identify what are called triggers, things that have led them to drink in the past," Hesselbrock said. "It could be a group of friends or there could be things at work or in a family situation that's a source of stress. We help them develop strategies."

As the center enters its fifth decade -- something Hesselbrock and Bauer are still in awe of -- they're appreciative of every person who has been part of the research center's achievements.

"It's been successful because it's been a group of people committed to the center and to the problem," Hesselbrock said. "Each of them has brought complimentary skills and knowledge. It's been an evolving situation. So many new people have come in. We are constantly redefining the focus of the center."

The research center offers a few forms of free treatment to the public. One study that offers counseling can be reached by calling 860-679-2745. Another study offering counseling and medication can be reached by calling 860-679-8979. Both studies require several visits to UConn Health in Farmington.


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