Pursuit of Happiness – Teenage, Addiction and Beyond

I was inspired to write this post after my friends had introduced me to a series of episodes of Border Security Australia’s Frontline on YouTube, which I got hooked on for a while. I realized that probably every country like them is trying to tackle and fight the global burden of addiction, of drug abuse and alcoholism.

A WHO report provides these alarming numbers from worldwide: 2 billion alcohol users, 1.3 billion smokers and 185 million drug users. As the definition of happiness continue to blur in today’s world and we tend to succumb to stress, pressure, depression, anxiety, and insecurity, the bumpy ride of adolescence is most easily struck by addiction and illicit substance use. Our teenager friends then caught in a hormonal tornado start believing that only alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, and drugs could set their quickest path towards joy and pleasure, but in reality all of these only produce a short-lived state of euphoria. At this point, I am reminded of what Wayne Gerard Trotman said instead, “Happiness is not to be found at the bottom of a bottle or from the tip of a needle; it is not to be found amidst a cloud of smoke or within a sugar-coated pill. If you look for it in these places, you will find naught but despair.” Explicitly, addiction means a persistent compulsive use of a substance known to be harmful and the state of being addicted goes beyond substance dependency. Researchers link addiction to environmental factors such as family and community experiences like familial substance use, child abuse and neglect, socio-economic status, peer culture, cost and availability as well as individual factors for instance sexual abuse and emotional abuse, occupation etc. Either alone or in combination, such risk factors leaves a detrimental impact on the society including road accidents, delinquent behavior, juvenile crime, infectious diseases, and alike. Treatment interventions are multidimensional but one question arises concerning the measures of success, what if the risk factors are within you, in your genes, in the brain, in your biological make-up and the developmental stages. The resilience or vulnerability to teenage substance use is increasingly being confronted by such genetic, neurological and developmental factors which become more important for progression to heavy substance use.

A disease model states addiction as a brain disease. It also considers addiction irreversible once acquired. A developmental model, on the other hand is based on the fact that immaturity or developmental arrest causes addiction. While human development occurs throughout the lifespan, the most significant development occurs during childhood and adolescence. As human beings mature, they increase their capacity to defer acting upon immediate selfish desires and emotional impulses, use rational thought to make wise choices, and consider their actions in the larger context of their relationships and society as a whole. The capacity to understand oneself in relation to the ‘big picture’ is what “develops” in development. The psychopathological model strongly sees mental disorders as the cause of addiction. These disorders might include cognitive difficulties, mood disturbances, and other mental illnesses. In fact, addiction and other mental health disorders commonly occur together called co-morbidity. The idea that alcohol and drug dependence share a genetic liability with each other has been proved by researchers who have also identified numerous genes as risk factors for dependence on alcohol and other drugs. These include genes involved in alcohol metabolism as well as in the transmission of nerve cell signals and modulation of nerve cell activity.

The combination of pharmacological and behavioral therapies appears to be the most effective in treating dependence. Neuroscience is a fast growing field of scientific research. Though the knowledge base is far from complete, there is a considerable amount of useful data with enormous potential for influencing policies to reduce the burden of disease and disability associated with substance use. Finally, emerging technologies and therapies to prevent and treat dependence and related problems pose difficult ethical issues. These issues should be addressed by national and international scientific and policy communities as a priority.

One question that arises concerning the measures of success: is a treatment considered successful only if complete abstinence is obtained? Or, is a reduction in the amount, frequency or harmful use of a substance sufficient as a measure of success?

Why should scientists share their data?

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher, once rightly said that “The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long.” I believe this implies to scientific problems as well and hence fosters the need to share scientific data that is otherwise ubiquitous, yet volatile. As 21st century-science is increasingly driven by data-intensive research; data sharing will enable researchers to verify and reproduce findings, ask new questions from existing data, collaborate on unresolved research problems, generate healthy criticism and build individual perception of other’s data. More so, even ‘negative data’ or ‘failed hypotheses’ should be made available to the scientific community to encourage identification of  gaps in the study and interpretation of points that might have been overlooked by others or help save others from wasting resources on repeating failed experiments. Scientists should provide access for the use and re-use of their data without being insecure that their misery today can become someone else’s success story tomorrow. A scientific breakthrough was made almost six decades ago, when Rosalind Franklin presented her data on the structure of DNA at a lecture in King’s College, London at which James Watson was in attendance.  Maurice Wilkins shared the X-ray crystallography data of Franklin with Francis Crick. The data confirmed the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had theorized for DNA. In 1953, Wilkins and Franklin as well as Watson and Crick published their papers in the same Nature issue. In 1962, the Nobel Prize was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for solving the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s discovery went unnoticed but still immensely contributes to present-day science.

From the ethical point of view, scientists do owe reparations to the public in the form of data accessibility if the research being conducted is publicly funded. The critical importance of data sharing has been addressed across disciplines, particularly in the field of clinical trials and cancer research as has been highlighted in a blog post on the need of data sharing in an issue of The Guardian by Mark Hahnel, founder of Figshare, an open platform for sharing research data at Digital Science. All of the information should be made available related to the case studies, be it the raw data, the metadata, or the software details; this would minimize problems of reproducibility while testing the drugs and prevent the release of illicit drugs into the market.

Imagine if images of disease phenotypes, information on causes, symptoms, prevention and cure of certain diseases or genetic data of diseased patients have limited accessibility, not because of lack of volume of data gathered, but because of poor data management and sharing practices. This would not just limit the understanding of the molecular pathology of the disease but also the development of treatment paradigms! We have to bring a shift in attitude within us and amongst our peer researchers regarding data sharing, evidence building, and declare it a ‘norm’. Big data can always be published in form of a journal article, but why not release those data sets locked up in your unpublished paper files, buried in journal-article appendices or hidden away on your hard drives, quotes Richard Van Noorden, a senior reporter at Nature. In a broader sense, such practices will contribute to a common cause that is making science ‘transparent and approachable’. Data sharing allows innovation in science, and the perks of sharing data by researchers is raising recognition and prominence for themselves as well as attracting citations and gaining visibility.

Do not impede the progress of science, let it flow and reach new heights!

A PhD story!

‘Come on, do a PhD. What other options do you have’? I was told.

My motivation for doing a PhD is what you would call ‘typical’. In fact, I think most biologists will agree with me on this. Put simply, I applied for a PhD because if you study Biotechnology, you do not have too many options other than doing a PhD and continue working on bench with your pipette, unless you switch to industry immediately and science takes a back seat most of the time. Secondly, I thought I could break the trend in my family where everyone was either a medical doctor or an engineer.

That is my PhD story. But I have heard better reasons for doing a PhD. I love my topic. True to an extent, it’s actually a good idea to really enjoy your work. You have to live it for more than 3 years, after all. I love science and research. Fair enough! Even if your PhD project isn’t perfect, you’re motivated by the opportunity to get to work with some of the finest minds in your field and you will be PAID to do something that you like doing the most. A PhD will let me advance my career. But honestly, sometimes a PhD will not be enough, you will be under qualified and a PhD will only enable you to go onto a postdoctoral position or a lectureship, but not beyond. Are there many options in industry? Well, probably by now you are overqualified for them. They don’t hire you because they don’t want to pay you more just because you have an additional degree. I enjoy the student life. You still do not have to pay tax, you can avail reduced entry to museums and the zoo. Decent deal! There are other inspirations as well. When not under a fellowship, maybe your parents or your partner is helping you out financially because they are rich, or you’re still able to stay and study somewhere close to your partner and family.

What is it like being a PhD student? The stress, the worry that your experiments did not work, the pressure to publish, the uncertainty whether you can produce a thick 200-300 pages thesis by the end of 4-5 years, the 24*7 working hours, are a few constants all of you can relate to. Beyond that, how different were your PhD experience. It depends upon the topic, the supervisor, the location, the department, the institute, and the colleagues. Nobody but only you truly understand the pleasure and pain you derive from your PhD. Colleagues, partners, family, even your own supervisor may at times feel distant from you and if you are away from home, not living with your partner, perhaps in a different country, speaking a different language, it’s easy to feel lonely.

A PhD is a challenge, it’s harder for some people than others, but it’s not easy for anyone. I being a DOCTOR now believe that doing a PhD was amazingly liberating. My research and my time are my own; that freedom is unparalleled in conventional jobs.