NSF Grant Enables Research to Combat Addiction, Ease Recovery

Dessa Bergen-Cico
Dessa Bergen-Cico

Researchers at Syracuse University’s Falk College and College of Engineering and Computer Science are teaming up to provide hope and help to those in need. It comes in the form of scientific study and expert knowledge with the goal of ending addiction.

Opioid use disorder is one of the leading public health problems in the United States. Dessa Bergen-Cico has spent her career working to combat addiction and find solutions that work.

“Trauma, stress and addiction are all related. To have sustainable recovery from addiction, we have to help people understand what they are feeling, what contributes to their stress and learn healthy ways of regulating emotions,” she says.

Bergen-Cico is a professor in the department of public health at Falk College. There, she coordinates the addiction studies program. She is also a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.

The rate and cost of relapse for people in recovery is high, with a large risk of fatal overdose. Opioids create physical dependency and change people’s brains in terms of how they process reward and motivation, self-regulation and how people react to stress. Even years after discontinuing drug use, stress and anxiety can trigger the urge to use opioids and other drugs.

Research has found that mindfulness-based strategies can prevent relapse and foster sustainable recovery. “We are trying to demonstrate how and why it works. Our preliminary research, which was funded by two CUSE (Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence) grants, measured changes in neural correlates associated with stress addiction and trauma,” says Bergen-Cico. “We found significant changes with a relatively short period of practice for key areas of the brain related to attention, working memory and emotional regulation.” Neural correlates are brain activity that corresponds with specific regions of the brain and are associated with similar brain functions.

“The findings from both CUSE grants helped pinpoint how and why mindfulness can help change the stress reactions that can lead to the development of an addiction as well as increased risk of relapse. We used fNIRS (functional near infrared spectroscopy) sensors to measure areas of the brain that regulate the ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signals that contribute to addiction. Using data from the fNIRS sensors, we were able to identify patterns of change in regions of the brain associated with the stress response. The data from the fNIRS sensors enabled us to measure significant changes in the mindfulness intervention study participants that were present before changes in self report measures,” says Bergen-Cico.

Asif Salekin
Asif Salekin

Bergen-Cico is working with Asif Salekin, assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Computer science and a larger team at Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to validate whether they can reliably predict the stress response in a larger group of participants. “By comparing results across three cohorts and interventions, we’re hoping to determine if making participants aware of the physiological stress response can cue them to interrupt the stress cycle using mindfulness and other cognitive behavioral techniques,” says Bergen-Cico. “The National Science Foundation award will fund this stage of the research.” The grant itself was awarded to Prof. Salekin, who serves as the principal investigator.

“In partnership with Professor Asif Salekin in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and his ongoing NSF-supported research, Professor Bergen-Cico’s investigation in addiction recovery demonstrates both the need for research in areas such as addiction, trauma and mindfulness, as well as the vast potential impact research has to inform policy and practice and improve our broader health as a population” says Falk College Dean Diane Lyden Murphy. “In addition, our faculty integrate new research and theory into the classroom, preparing students for successful careers as allied health workers, social service managers, policymakers and advocates.”

“Our ultimate hope is that we can provide a sustainable recovery tool that gives people insight into their own physiological and psychological reactivity to stress and life outside of a structured rehabilitation setting,” Bergen-Cico says. “We know that applying these techniques consistently, over time can help sustain people’s abstinence. If we can create a wearable or in-home monitoring device that predictably detects the stress responses that lead to cravings and then cues the use of cognitive and mindfulness techniques, it could be an important tool for sustainable recovery from addiction.”

A Syracuse University News story by Ellen de Graffenreid originally published on January 10, 2022.