UNCW Professors Receive $446,000 National Institutes of Health Grant for Opioid Research

Friday, March 01, 2019

Psychology professors Raymond Pitts and Christine Hughes received a $446,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health to research how acute and chronic exposure to the prescription opioid oxycodone affect specific reward processes involved in impulsive and risky behavior.

Quite simply, psychoactive drugs change how individuals behave. Pitts explained that sometimes drug effects are favorable, as when certain drugs are given to help with anxiety or with attention/impulsive disorders. Sometimes drug effects are unfavorable, such as when they affect the ability to make effective decisions.

“Many of our decisions involve weighing the values of the outcomes,” Pitts said. “Impulsive decisions occur when we choose a smaller reward that we receive right away over a larger reward that we will receive later,” he said. "Sometimes we take the smaller, sooner reward over the larger, later one, even when it may cost us in the long run. With impulsive decisions, the immediacy of the reward has a bigger impact on our choice than the size of the reward.”

The grant will fund research to examine how psychoactive drugs can change individuals’ choices by changing the impact of the immediacy and/or size of the reward.

“Individuals tend to be more impulsive under the influence of opioid drugs,” Pitts said. Given the increased use and abuse of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, he and Hughes will examine acute and chronic effects of oxycodone on impulsive and risky choice, and attempt to identify the reward mechanisms involved in these effects. Knowing how drugs change the impact of the different reward mechanisms will help researchers design better medications and design behavioral treatments to treat impulsive behavior problems.

The project incorporates many of the goals outlined in UNCW’s Strategic Plan, including commitments to providing a rigorous, relevant educational experience, and employing the university’s research capabilities to address current and future societal needs.

“Both undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in all phases of the work, which includes helping us design and refine the specific experiments, conducting the experiments, analyzing the data, and disseminating our findings at conferences and in scientific publications,” said Hughes.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15DA045960. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
-- Venita Jenkins

Hughes and Pitts

Psychology professors Christine Hughes and Raymond Pitts