This open letter is from scientists and leaders in the addiction research community. If you’d like to join the signatories listed below, please do in comments at the bottom of this article. Please also share with others with an interest in research on addiction.
Smoking – and nicotine addiction – are sometimes easy targets for criticism by many people. For others, addiction is a mental health issue of deep concern, affecting one in seven Americans during their lifetime, often resulting in immeasurable suffering and even death. There are many reasons that addiction can be an easy target and perennial candidate for ridicule. One is that some believe addiction is “simply a matter of weak willpower,” evidence of a “moral failing,” or some other character flaw. In this, we see parallels to medieval beliefs that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression were due to witchcraft, demonic possession, wandering uteruses, and weak moral character.
Addiction is a brain disorder
Through decades of scientific study of the brain, behavior, genetics, and physiology, we now know that addiction is a complex disorder affected by neural function, genes, and the environment. We also know – at a specific level – about the brain chemistry and circuits that increase the risk for and play a role in addiction—including smoking. Unfortunately, there is still a lot we do not know, including questions such as: Why are some individuals vulnerable to addiction and others not? Why does relapse after any kind of treatment occur at such phenomenally high rates? Why do drug abusers persist in seeking and taking substances that so clearly will lead to incarceration, poverty, even death?
It is these gaps in knowledge – along with empathy for those suffering because of addiction—that lead the nation’s health research agencies to actively support addiction research. Yet, there are others who seek to end this lifesaving research. For example, a months-long campaign by the anti-animal research advocacy group White Coat Waste Project targeting nicotine addiction research recently got a boost from Jane Goodall, the celebrity primatologist known for research on chimpanzee behavior. This marks yet another high profile pairing of Goodall and groups fundamentally opposed to all nonhuman animal research. Here, Goodall wrote to the head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about research on nicotine addiction in monkeys conducted at the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR).
Addiction costs the US billions each year
What Goodall claims is that the research is a misuse of taxpayer’s money because of her belief that ‘the results of smoking are well-known in humans’, and that the same research can be done in humans. Both statements are shocking, no less so because they come from a prominent scientist whose very profession is based on reporting facts.
Even a cursory glance at the state of tobacco use in the US gives some clues as to why statements like this are irresponsible: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), tobacco use kills approximately 440,000 Americans each year. Given the White Coat Waste Project’s interest in saving the taxpayer’s money, the estimated economic impact of tobacco use, including everything from healthcare costs to cigarette-related fires, is almost $200 billion per year (see NIDA Research Report Series online, 2012). So, clearly nicotine addiction remains a significant public health problem and it is quite evident that we do not understand this disorder well enough to eradicate it—current treatments basically have just slowed it down. There is much work to do.
Outright wrong: the FDA nicotine research Goodall targets is not taxpayer funded
There is another blatant inaccuracy in Goodall’s letter to the FDA, namely, the very idea that this is a fraudulent waste of taxpayer’s money. In fact, the funding source for NCTR nicotine research is the Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), which was established to oversee implementation of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.
What is important here is that CTP funding comes from “tobacco user fees” charged to manufacturers of tobacco products. In other words, no taxpayer’s money is funding this research. How can the public trust any claim by Goodall and White Coat Waste if even this basic fact was ignored?
Why research with humans cannot answer the full range of questions
What is lost in the simple formulation that Goodall uses is the fact that research with humans cannot answer fundamentally important questions that are basic to progress in understanding, preventing, and treating addiction. Species other than humans take drugs. The fact that monkeys and rodents “self-administer” drugs in a manner similar to humans provides scientists with an extremely valuable model of drug addiction. The discovery of the “reward center” in the brain, the role of the chemical dopamine, even the basic principles of many behavioral therapies for addiction—all of these basic findings come from studies with monkeys and/or rodents self-administering drugs. In fact, the discovery that nicotine is the primary ingredient of tobacco products that contributes to their addictive properties, as well as the designation of nicotine as a drug of abuse, relied on self-administration studies. And yet, we are just at the beginning of understanding addiction as a brain disorder (rather than a simple moral failure or a series of bad decisions).
Instead of using monkeys in nicotine addiction research, Goodall suggests that ‘smoking habits’ can be studied ‘directly’ in humans. These two scenarios are entirely different—you don’t study ‘smoking habits’ in monkeys (who generally don’t go to the local gas station for some smokes). Smoking habits are an incredibly important part of nicotine addiction, but studying nicotine self-administration has entirely different goals. For example, the NCTR researchers are interested in brain changes following nicotine taking in adults and adolescents. What the monkey experiments allow them to do is isolate just nicotine (burning tobacco creates approximately 7000 chemicals)
and study its effects in a highly controlled environment. This approach allows the researchers to draw much firmer conclusions about effects on brain function than could ever be obtained in people smoking cigarettes. To treat nicotine addiction, we have to know precisely what nicotine does to the brain, and we need to do this in a systematic, carefully controlled manner. We also need to know, however, what all the other chemicals are doing in order to understand the “real life” situation. Studying nicotine alone provides a platform for going about doing those types of studies, eventually recreating the real life experiences of the tobacco abuser.
Absolutism is different from consideration of animal welfare
Research in laboratories with animals is conducted humanely, ethically, and under careful oversight guided by federal and state laws, regulations, guidelines, and by institutional policy. Importantly, it is unclear what evidence Goodall and White Coat Waste have for any serious violations of regulations at the FDA facility. It may be the case that Jane Goodall and White Coat Waste are opposed to animal research that is conducted in order to benefit human health. That is a different argument, however, than saying that addiction research is unnecessary, that human studies are all that is needed, or that the animals are abused. We in the scientific community wholeheartedly support ethical, humanely-conducted research on addiction to nicotine and other drugs of abuse, which is in the public’s interest. At the same time, we condemn this irresponsible and factually-challenged assault on research at the NCTR.
We, the undersigned, support the careful, considered and regulated use of primates in addiction research. While respecting Dr. Jane Goodall as an eminent primatologist—known for her knowledge of chimpanzee behavior in the wild—we do not believe she has the necessary expertise to intervene into the scientific questions of addiction research and neuroscience. Addiction is a major public health issue worldwide, and requires and deserves close scientific scrutiny, some of which will require the use of animals.
James K. Rowlett, Ph.D., Professor and Vice Chair for Research, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Jack E. Henningfield, Ph.D., Vice President, Research, Health Policy, and Abuse Liability, Pinney Associates, Inc. and Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center, of Neuroscience and of Pharmacology, Deputy Chair for Basic Science Research, Dept. of Psychiatry, Deputy Director, Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Yale University
Travis Thompson, Ph.D., L.P., Professor, University of Minnesota; Past President of American Psychological Association Division of Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse; Past Member, College on Problems of Drug Dependence Executive Committee
Charles P. France, Ph.D., Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry, Professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry, University of Texas Health Science Center- San Antonio
Michael A. Nader, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology, Pharmacology, and Radiology and Director, Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction Treatment; Co-Director, Center for Research on Substance Use and Addiction, Wake Forest School of Medicine
Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (Health Program) and
Director, Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, Virginia Commonwealth University
Nancy A. Ator, Ph.D., Professor of Behavioral Biology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Roger D. Spealman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychobiology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Kathleen A. Grant, Ph.D., Chief and Senior Scientist, Division of Neuroscience, Professor, Dept. Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon National Primate Research Center
Alan J. Budney, Ph.D., President, College on Problems of Drug Dependence, Past President, Division of Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse (28) and the Division on Addictions (50) – American Psychological Association, Professor, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth
Peter W. Kalivas, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Neuroscience, Medical University of South Carolina
Marilyn E. Carroll, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Department of Psychiatry, University of Minnesota
Craig A. Stockmeier, Ph.D., Professor, Dept Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Janet Neisewander, Ph.D., Professor, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University
Mary E Cain, PhD, Professor of Psychological Sciences, Past President for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology, Kansas State University
Wei-Dong Yao, PhD, Professor, SUNY Upstate Medical University
Lance R. McMahon, PhD, Chair and Professor of Pharmacodynamics, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida
Michael N. Lehman, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences, Chairman of the Board, UMMC Neuro Institute, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Donna M. Platt, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Michael A. Taffe, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The Scripps Research Institute
Linda J. Porrino, PhD, Professor and Chair, Wake Forest School of Medicine
Kevin B. Freeman, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Mei-Chuan Ko, Ph.D., Professor, Wake Forest School of Medicine
Sally L. Huskinson, Ph.D., Instructor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Mark Smith, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Davidson College
Daniel C. Williams, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Director, Division of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Eric J. Vallender, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Matthew Banks, PharmD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Virginia Commonwealth University
Paul May, Ph.D., Department of Neurobiology & Anatomical Sciences, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, UCLA, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
Catherine M. Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor, Division of Behavioral Biology, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Klaus A. Miczek, Ph.D., Moses Hunt Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, Pharmacology, & Neuroscience, Tufts University, Department of Psychology
Wendy J. Lynch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia
Michael T. Bardo, Professor of Psychology, Director, Center for Drug Abuse Research Translation (CDART), University of Kentucky
Xiu Liu, MD, PhD, Professor, Department of Pathology, Associate Director, Graduate Program in Pathology, University of Mississippi Medical Center
Katherine Serafine, PhD, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Psychology
Robert L. Balster, PhD, Butler Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, former CoDirector of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
David Jentsch, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Binghamton University
William W. Stoops, Ph.D., Professor, University of Kentucky College of Medicine
Jack Bergman, Ph.D., McLean Hospital / Harvard Medical School
Barry Setlow, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Florida College of Medicine
Doris J. Doudet, PhD, Professor, Dept. Medicine/Neurology, University of British Columbia
Leonard L. Howell, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University
S. Stevens Negus, PhD, Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Virginia Commonwealth University
Carrie K. Jones, Ph.D., Director, In Vivo and Translational Pharmacology, Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, Vanderbilt University