Neurobiology and Substance Abuse

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

FOR MOST OF US, the ideas of liking something and wanting something would seem to be almost identical. But for substance abusers, the two thoughts can become completely uncoupled—someone who is addicted may no longer really like the substance that he now craves. Jeff Beeler, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago, is working to tease out how the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a role in this dichotomy and how understanding the biological factors that compel substance abuse can help quell those desires.

"My work looks at the relationship between learning and motivation and how the dopamine system mediates this relationship. I think dopamine evolved to highlight to the brain what it should pay attention to, what's important. For substance abusers, it is widely believed that the natural reward system is being hijacked by the drugs of abuse," says Beeler, who also teaches "Biomedical Perspectives in Social Work" at SSA as a lecturer.

As a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Xiaoxi Zhuang's laboratory, Beeler is using genetically engineered mice to examine the phasic activity of dopamine. Although we have known about dopamine for nearly 50 years, much of how it functions in the body is still a mystery. Scientists no longer believe that dopamine is a signal transmitter for pleasure, but how it helps process stimuli is not fully clear. "Dopamine seems to take pleasure information and help the brain learn from it," Beeler says. "It's involved in a lot of psychological problems—ADHD, substance abuse, schizophrenia—many of the issues that social workers deal with in their work."

Beeler, who has a M.S.W. from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, became interested in neurobiology while working with chronically mentally ill adults. "I started to increasingly appreciate how biological factors might cause people to act in ways that are so very different," he says.

In the course that he teaches at SSA, Beeler provides students with information about the biological factors that impact issues from mood disorders to substance abuse. "Social work always has put forth the idea of biological, psychological, and social perspectives, but the biological components aren't really looked at as much," he says. "We want a social worker to recognize the potential biological factors that may contribute to challenges faced by their clients and to understand what options and treatments are available and when they might be appropriate."