Comedian Tracy Morgan collapsed over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, and many speculated that the 30 Rock star was intoxicated. But his publicist says the claims are completely untrue. The 43-year-old Saturday Night Live veteran was being honored in Park City, Utah at the Creative Coalition Spotlight Awards; he suddenly became unresponsive after his acceptance speech. An ambulance took Morgan to a nearby hospital for treatment and tests there found no drugs or alcohol in his system. His publicist says: “He is with his fiancée and grateful to the Park City Medical Center for their care. Any reports of Tracy consuming alcohol are 100 per cent false. From a combination of exhaustion and altitude, Tracy is seeking medical attention.” Morgan was diagnosed with diabetes back in the 90s, and was hospitalized in 2010 to receive a kidney transplant.
Brain imaging—high-tech cameras like MRI and PET scans—have stolen the show in addiction science recently, with two much-publicized studies backing previously unproven if extremely prevalent assumptions. Yet while the pricey photos offer important descriptive data, they—and the media—oversimplify the picture, confusing cause and effect and more.
- What's the Matter With the White Matter? [The Guardian]
A new study of "Internet addiction” from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuha made a big buzz last week. The media portrayed it as the first-ever proof of the disorder, but many scientists scoffed. Some even suspected political bias in a nation where Internet access is harshly policed. MRI scans of the brains of 17 adolescents with “Internet addiction disorder”—an official diagnosis in China, unlike in the US—showed abnormalities in the white matter, the tissue through which messages of emotion, cognition, attention and decision making are transmitted. These impairments resemble those associated with alcoholism and other addictions. The study had major limitations: It was tiny—involving just a handful of heavy-gaming kids—and the authors admit there’s no way to know whether the white-matter mess is the cause or the effect of gaming compulsion.
As popular culture applies the "addiction" concept to every imaginable transgression, many scientists push back, pointing out that state-of-the-art neuroscience shows addicted brains share very specific structural and functional irregularities. The 2012 DSM-V will reportedly add only one behavior—gambling—to its list of substance addictions. (Sex and Internet addictions will be second-classed in the appendix.) No one denies that more people are spending many nonproductive, even self-destructive, hours trolling the Web. But classifying a compulsive activity as an addiction may divert research into, and treatment for, its underlying psychological causes, said Colin Drummond, professor of addiction psychiatry at King’s College London. “If people have emotional problems that lead them to use the Internet obsessively, then they obviously need help...but that's quite different from saying that the Internet is addictive. Excessive Internet use is a symptom not a cause of a person's problems.”
- Is Alcoholism a Problem of Too Much or Not Enough? [Science Translational Medicine]
Scientists have long assumed that alcohol makes you feel good by triggering the release of endorphins, the brain’s “natural opiates.” A new study using PET scans to record the immediate effects of booze on 13 heavy drinkers (and 12 nondrinkers) now backs this theory—all 25 volunteers got an endorphin hit. More suggestive was the finding that while the natural-opiate levels in the brain’s pleasure centers were the same for all, only the heavy drinkers reported that they felt better the more they drank. (This correlation was seen only in the brain’s reward-processing region.)
That alcoholics find more bliss in the bottle than others may be self-evident, yet PET-scan confirmation increases the promise of investment in R&D. But as with the Chinese MRI imaging, basic questions demand answers. Which came first, the endorphin aberration or the alcoholism? And are heavy drinkers chasing the bottle because their pleasure center is out of whack? Said the Scripps Research Institute's Dr. George Koob, a leading specialist in the neurobiology of addiction: "It could be that some people don't have very good endorphin release and alcohol is the only way for them to get that." The study's lead author, Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco, hopes that "if we can block that high, eventually alcoholics will learn that drink isn't worth it anymore. That's why we think drug treatment could be effective.”
In fact, naltrexone, which targets the same opiate receptors as alcohol-induced endorphins, is already prescribed to tens of thousands of alcoholics, with mixed benefits. Also available as a once-monthly injection called Vivitrol, naltrexone can partially blunt booze’s buzz. But it also blocks other opiate receptors, causing a decrease in overall pleasure, which may spur further drinking. One innovation would be the development of a more specific opiate antagonist that obstructs only alcohol-related endorphin harbors, not the other pleasure-producing receptors. "We believe this research will help us reverse-engineer naltrexone," Mitchell said. "You don't want to block good feelings in general. You want it to be specific to the alcohol. That's the key."
For every celebrity who says that one of Dr. Drew's shows saved his life, there's another one knocking the Celeb Rehab experience. The latest is Phil Varone, former drummer for the bands Skid Row and Saigon Kick, who appeared in the one and only season of Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew alongside some other people you probably haven't heard of—like porn star Kendra Jade, Playmate Nicole Narain and producer/director Duncan Roy. While he appeared fully engaged in the process of recovery when the show aired in the fall of 2009, Varone was singing a different tune when he chatted with xojane's Managing Editor (and Fix contributor) Emily McCombs at the Adult Video News Awards this week.
"I don't identify as a sex addict," Varone said (after explaining the process of having the "coke bottle" part of his anatomy made into a sex toy). "My agent called and said, 'OK, we have a supermodel, we have a porn star, we have a Playboy Playmate, we need a rock star. Do you want to do it?' And I said, 'Well, to be on television, I guess I will.'" Varone added that he went to sex addict meetings but was "horrified" by the "issues" he heard people talking about there, and that two therapists have told him he's not a sex addict. He also shared some "colorful" details about his sexual predilections. "It's a testament to his sexual charisma that I listened to all this stuff about sticking drumsticks in women and only liking pregnant women when it's not his baby and felt totally charmed," confesses McCombs. "I don't know whether Phil Varone is a sex addict or not, but there was something seemingly compulsive about his schtick. Or maybe he's just got game."
British scientists are investigating the brains of people tripping on magic mushrooms in hopes of finding a better treatment for depression. Researchers working on two different studies have found that psilocybin—the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—suppresses activity in the same areas of the brain where anti-depressants work by reducing activity. The first study, published in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences journal, infused psilocybin into the blood of 30 volunteers inside an MRI scanner. The volunteers reported a feeling of the "cogs being loosened" and an altered sense of self. In the second study, soon to be published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the volunteers reported that psilocybin enhanced their recollections of personal memories. "Psychedelics are thought of as 'mind-expanding' drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity," says David Nutt of Imperial College London. "We're not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms. But...this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it's got to be meaningful—it's got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there's a therapeutic benefit."
- Clumsy Concordia Captain Tests Negative For Drugs [Reuters]
- 'Blind Mules' Unknowingly Transport Drugs Across Border [CNN]
- Magic Mushrooms May Hold Promise For New Anti-Depressant Drugs [Chicago Tribune]
- "Wegrow," Wal-Mart Of Weed Grow Supplies To Open Location In DC [Portfolio.com]
- Doctor Pleads No Contest In Sex For Scrips Scandal [Pittsburgh Gazette]
American Idol hopeful Amy Brumfield wowed the judges last week with her rendition of Alicia Keys' "Superwoman" and her story of living in a tent. But her newfound celebrity has caused details of her lengthy struggle with alcohol to surface. Police reports show she's been arrested six times since 2005—and three of those arrests were alcohol-related. The most recent such incident was in August 2010, when cops reported she was so drunk that she urinated on herself in the lobby of a Baskin Robbins. Brumfield also pleaded guilty to underage alcohol consumption in 2007 and was sentenced to probation. But she now seems motivated to change her life. “There are a lot of lessons I had to learn in life to get where I am mentally. If there’s any perfect time for me to be doing this, it’s now,” she said before her audition. American Idol is no stranger to drug- and alcohol-related issues among its cast members. Season 1 contestants Jessica Sierra and Nikki McKibbin appeared on various seasons of Celebrity Rehab to fight their addictions. And Adam Lambert got into a blackout-induced brawl with his boyfriend in Finland this past December, leading to both their arrests.