Penn State researchers are working in their labs and in their communities to address substance abuse, from prevention, treatment and recovery, to supporting affected families and communities.

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Research: A Distinctive Interdisciplinary and Translational Research Agenda

Toward a University-wide effort to combat the opioid epidemic, Penn State is leveraging its distinctive strengths in research on the following: (1) pathways to addiction; (2) criminal justice; (3) spillover effects to children, families and communities; (4) impact analysis; and 5) implementation and dissemination science. Below are example projects in each area.

Pathways to Addiction: Prevention and Treatment

Evidence-based programs and practices across the lifecycle of the disease from primary prevention to treatment and sustained recovery.

Drugs of Abuse and Learned Aversions: Solving a Paradox is research study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that uses animal models to examine shifts from reward to aversion following pairings of taste cues with opportunities to self-administer cocaine, and to determine whether taste reactivity behaviors are related to drug-seeking, drug-taking, withdrawal, and other indices of addiction. [PI: Patricia ‘Sue’ Grigson]

The PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER) Project, funded since 2001 primarily by NIDA, has documented the effectiveness of a community-engaged system for delivering evidence-based substance abuse prevention programs via Penn State Cooperative Extension. [PI: Janet Welsh]

Therapeutic Use of Cannabinoids for Chronic Pain is a research study funded by NIDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Health as part of the Commonwealth Universal Enhancement Program (CURE) awarded from tobacco settlement funds. [PI: Daniel Morgan]

Affordable Brain Imaging for Treating Addiction, a research study supported by the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), is investigating an objective, brain-based measure to predict treatment outcomes in prescription opioid use disorder. [PI: Scott Bunce]

WearIT is a system that uses wearable devices and smartphones as tools to help individuals battle addiction. WearIT detects when a patient is having cravings, offers in-the-moment intervention strategies to the patient, and collects additional data to provide to others involved in the patient’s recovery. [PIs: Timothy Brick and Zita Oravecz]

Understanding the Individual and Social Network Characteristics of Opiate Users in Rural Pennsylvania is a pilot project funded by the Penn State Criminal Justice Research Center to explore the individual, community, and peer network characteristics of those who use opioids in rural Pennsylvania. [PI: Ashton Verdery]

Projects Funded by Social Science Research Institute Seed Grants as part of Penn State’s Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse:

  • ‘Alexa, I’m in pain!’ A Real-Time Mindfulness Intervention to Control Pain: Delivery Through a Conversational Agent will leverage the Amazon Alexa ecosystem to develop an interactive, personalized virtual coach for delivery of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practices. [PIs: Saeed Abdullah and Stephanie Lanza]
  • Neural Mediators and Moderators of Mindful Yoga Practice in Opiate-Dependent Individuals will consider the neurocognitive mediators and moderators of the impact of a yoga practice incorporating mindfulness in Opioid Use Disorder Medication-Assisted Therapy in rural Pennsylvania. [PI: Emma Rose]
  • The Influence of Adolescent Social Stress on Morphine Behaviors aims to determine if chronic adolescent social stress alters morphine behavioral responses and if this relationship is influenced by genetics. [PI: Helen Kamens]
  • PROSPER PLUS: Combining Effective Prevention Education with Supply Side Interventions to Reduce Opioid Misuse will lay the groundwork for a large trial comparing the relative efficacy of the PROSPER prevention system alone versus in conjunction with community Drug Take Back Boxes designed to reduce the supply of prescription drugs in communities. [PI: Janet Welsh]

Criminal Justice

Multi-county, multi-campus approach to address the supply and demand of opioids.

Identifying and Informing Strategies for Disrupting Drug Distribution Networks: An Application for Community Policing to Opiate Flows in Pennsylvania, in partnership with Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol, The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, and local treatment facilities, aims to identify hotspots of drug distribution and access, while addressing the utility of community based policing in addressing this complex issue. [PIs: Glenn Sterner and Ashton Verdery]

Illuminating the Opioid Drug Crisis in Pennsylvania: Trends, Patterns, and Correlates of Drug and Opioid Law Violations Across Pennsylvania Counties, a research study funded by the Penn State Criminal Justice Research Center, is looking at patterns and trends in opioid-drug law violations over the 2000-2017 period across a rural-continuum of counties. [PIs: Darrell Steffensmeier and Jeffery Ulmer]

Projects Funded by Social Science Research Institute Seed Grants as part of Penn State’s Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse:

  • Linking Accidental Overdoses to Medical Professionals and Pharmacies: A Population-Based Social Network Analysis will determine patterns among victims of opioid overdoses, prescribers, and dispensaries of prescription opioid painkillers in order to more accurately identify healthcare professionals who may be targets for either education or criminal justice interdiction efforts. [PIs: Glenn Sterner]

Spillover Effects to Children, Families, and Communities

Research and intervention for children living with parental opioid addiction, children at significant risk for neglect and abuse, and children who are parentally bereaved by addiction; tools to support grandparents and other kin who are suddenly caregivers; and basic research on long-term effects of in utero exposure to Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

The Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and their Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) P50 Capstone Center award, Translational Center for Child Maltreatment Studies, conducts translational research and fosters education and community engagement to prevent, detect, and treat child abuse. As part of the Center’s P50, Christine Heim leads a project, Etiological Processes in the Onset and Maintenance of Adverse Health Outcomes in Maltreated Youth, that is implementing a large, prospective cohort study to examine the effects of child maltreatment on multiple etiological processes believed to play a role in the onset and maintenance of adverse health outcomes for victims. [PI: Jennie Noll]

Share Your Opioid Story, funded by the Independence Blue Cross Foundation and with support from the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, collects stories from people of all backgrounds and experiences to show how the stigma of opioid addiction is affecting individuals, families and communities, and how individuals with diseases of addiction choose to access treatment. [PI: Glenn Sterner]

Projects Funded by Social Science Research Institute Seed Grants as part of Penn State’s Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse:

  • Opioid Prescription Practices and Risk Factors for Persistent Use After Childbirth will examine opioid-prescribing practices after childbirth and risk factors for their persistent use after birth in an effort to develop clinical practice guidelines and a risk screening protocol. [PI: Danielle Downs]
  • Perinatal Opioid Use and Maternal Nutrition and Health Status will use existing, publicly available data to describe the nutritional status of women of childbearing age who are exposed to both illicit and prescription opioids compared to the status of women who are not exposed to opioids. [PI: Emily Hohman]
  • Using Integrated Databases to Examine Patient Outcomes in Children with a History of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome will investigate the effects of the opioid epidemic on children’s school performance in order to propose and test evidence-based interventions. [PI: Tammy Corr]

Impact Analysis

Novel approaches to research design, data collection, privacy and security; and modeling and analysis to illuminate the complexities of human behavior, health and development.

Estimating the Societal Costs to States Due to the Opioid Epidemic, funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and led by a team of researchers at Penn State, resulted in a report on the “spillover” of costs of the opioid epidemic to states, including to health care, criminal justice, child welfare, education and special education, and employment. [PI: Dennis Scanlon]

The Methodology Center and their National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) P50 Center of Excellence award, Center for Complex Data to Knowledge in Drug Abuse and HIV Behavioral Science, advances public health by improving experimental design and data analysis in the social, behavioral, and health sciences. New technologies and approaches (e.g., smartphones, long-term cohort studies, genetic data) are producing complex data sets that are rich with information and new statistical analysis methods need to be developed and disseminated to unlock the knowledge contained in these data and apply it in the fight against drug abuse. As part of the Center’s P50, Stephanie Lanza leads a project, Multidimensional and Dynamic Moderation in Drug Abuse and HIV Studies, that is developing a powerful new framework that integrates ideas from latent class analysis and time-varying effect models to enable researchers to discover (a) clinically useful, multidimensional moderators and (b) moderators that play a dynamic (i.e., age- and time-varying) role in the effects of interventions on univariate and multidimensional outcomes. Runze Li leads a project, New Statistical Procedures for High-Dimensional Complex Drug Abuse Data, that is developing new methods for variable screening in high-dimensional data to enable researchers to focus their efforts on a reduced subset of predictors that have potential impact on drug abuse. [P50 PI: Linda Collins]

The Pennsylvania Integrative Data System (IDS) Consortium provides researchers with access to and ability to link administrative data from multiple government agencies to address policy-relevant questions in efforts to address systemic problems such as the opioid epidemic (Consortium Co-Chairs: Daniel ‘Max’ Crowley and Dennis Scanlon). The IDS draws on the infrastructure and expertise in the Data Accelerator, a data enclave for highly sensitive information that supports partnerships between researchers and policymakers to expedite research on critical social issues. [Data Accelerator PI: Daniel ‘Max’ Crowley]

Projects Funded by Social Science Research Institute Seed Grants as part of Penn State’s Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse:

  • An Innovative Approach to Tackle the Opioid Epidemic: Utilizing Twitter Data and Integrating Big Data Analytics and Spatial and Social Network Analyses aims to develop and test the novel use of Twitter data to study and address this epidemic. [PI: Zhen Lei]
  • Predicting Spatial-Temporal Patterns of Opioid Use with Criminal and Overdose Data in Pennsylvania will develop an analytical model to systematically project the time trend and geospatial distribution of the opioid epidemic and outcomes. [PI: Quishi Chen]

Implementation and Dissemination Science and Practice

Identify and evaluate approaches for translating knowledge into policies, programs, practices, and products that achieve broad and sustained uptake and utility.

The EPISCenter, funded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, translates high-quality research to ensure communities and policymakers have access to the most recent and rigorous research around what works in preventing youth substance use and other problem behaviors. These projects are part of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. [Primary Contact: Janet Welsh]

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs’ Behavioral Health Data Dashboards, a collaborative project between the Pennsylvania State Data Center at Penn State Harrisburg and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, provides county-level data that support data-driven decision-making processes and strategic planning at the state and local levels. Most importantly, provision of these data aims to help prevent as many Pennsylvanians as possible from becoming addicted and to help those who are suffering from the disease of addiction. [PI: Michael Behney]

Impact of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration Model: Testing an Approach to Improve the Use of Evidence, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, is evaluating a highly-structured and intensive collaboration model for its effectiveness in increasing legislators’ use of research in policy and legislation. [PI: Max Crowley]

As part of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and their NICHD P50, Translational Center for Child Maltreatment Studies, Max Crowley leads a support core that translates scientific findings, engages end-users, and packages key messages from Center research into high-impact communication products in order to increase reliance on child maltreatment research for policy and practice. [P50 PI: Jennie Noll]