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Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. -- The mystique of the '60s held a certain draw for college freshman Heather Wilson. That is, until she came home and found her best friend soaked in a pool of blood on the dorm room floor. Only then did the sobering reality of drug use settle in like a storm cloud on a sunny day.

From that day forward, Heather stepped up her relentless appeal to her father, Duke University neuropharmacologist Wilkie "Bill" Wilson, to write a book that would tell the truth about drugs, a book she felt might have spared her friend from plunging into the depths of suicidal despair through a seemingly innocent mix of booze and ordinary cold medicine.

Her own flirtation with the drug scene had often been curbed by a frank and truthful discussion with her father, and she felt that others could benefit enormously from a bias-free discussion about drugs and their actual effects on the body.

"Kids just aren't going to believe slogans like, 'Just say no' or 'Users are losers' when we see our friends using drugs and having a good time," said Heather Wilson, currently a junior at a Virginia women's college. "We're curious about the experiences we hear our peers describe, and the temptation to experiment isn't going to be curbed by someone telling us not to without a good reason to back it up."

By the end of her freshman year, she had racked up enough harrowing tales to convince her dad that kids are in dire need of accurate, truthful information about the risks of drugs, from simple over-the-counter remedies to heroin and ecstasy. After all, Bill Wilson himself had witnessed the brush with death that his daughter's friend had and was moved by the senselessness of her actions.

"I was driving down the road one day, and bam, I had a flash of an image, a spiral-bound book that anyone could pick up and read, even if they were buzzed," said Wilson. "I thought to myself, 'I know what we've got to do. And that is, to change the dismal approach of drug education in this country." Within weeks, he had enlisted the aid of two colleagues at Duke and the Durham VA Medical Center, and in less than a year they wrote Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy, published this month by Norton. The authors say Buzzed approaches drug education from the standpoint that knowledge is our most powerful weapon against making bad decisions.

For example, the book points out little-known facts like:

Mixing alcohol with certain commonly used antibiotics can cause vomiting, headache and seizures.

Long-term use of the drug ecstasy can permanently destroy serotonin and dopamine neurons in the brain, giving rise to anxiety and mood disorders.

The memory effects of smoking marijuana can last for two days; Babies exposed to nicotine in utero often suffer the same developmental delays as crack babies.

Chocolate and marijuana stimulate the same receptors in the brain.

The authors say such facts, woven into a serious discourse on drugs, serve to convey how complex the brain and body's responses are to even the most commonly used drugs, and how hard it is to make sweeping statements and have them be believed.

"Up to this point, drug education in America has been carried out by negative slogans," Bill Wilson said. "What that does is simply tell kids, 'Just draw a line in the sand. We're not going to tell you any more than that.' Well the problem is, humans are extremely curious and tend to go out and experiment, and they're going to find out on their own the hard way if we don't arm them with hard scientific evidence as to why they shouldn't."

While information on drugs abounds on the Internet and throughout the popular media, the researchers say it is often distorted by the source who provided it, from anti-drug crusaders to drug advocates to drug companies seeking a profit. There is little, if any, science-based literature for the layperson who simply wants to know what drugs do to the mind and body, how they do it, and what the user will experience with each drug, both positive and negative.

Cynthia Kuhn, a Duke pharmacologist and co-author of the book, has experienced first hand the distortions and myths that even the best-educated students bring to her classroom, and the resulting ambivalence it produces in their decision-making process. As a teacher and a scientist, Kuhn's students occasionally confer with her prior to a weekend of experimentation with a particular drug. She says they are keenly aware that what they've been told by their friends and parents doesn't necessarily mesh with the scientific facts.

"Sometimes they tell me that they're going to do the drug regardless of what I say, but then they'll come back to me the following week and say they decided not to try it because of the information I gave them," Kuhn said. "So our best line of defense is education, because there certainly isn't going to be a reduction in drug availability. Every time a new brain circuit or a new neurochemical is discovered, it's going to provide an opportunity to develop drugs that alter brain function in a new way," Kuhn said.

In fact, in recent years there has been a veritable explosion of new research on how chemicals act on the brain and body, yet little of this information is effectively translated for the public, in part because it is so complex, said Scott Swartzwelder, a neuropsychologist at Duke and the Durham VAMC and a co-author of the book.

"The actions of drugs on the brain are complicated and vary tremendously from drug to drug and person to person, making it impossible to make blanket statements like 'drugs kill,' and have them believed by anyone who has any drug experience," Swartzwelder said. "That's the inherent danger of drug use, the random nature of who will suffer ill effects and who won't, and at what point along the continuum of drug use. So it's crucial that you know the risk potential you're facing before you jump into it."

So complex is the action of alcohol, for example, that its long-term effects might not surface for many years after initial exposure, Swartzwelder said. His own studies, two of which are published this month, have shown that young animals respond in a vastly different way to alcohol than adult animals.

"Humans have been drinking alcohol for centuries without the knowledge that there might be a difference between its affects on kids versus adults," Swartzwelder said. "If we're just now discovering such information, what is the chance that other chemicals have very different effects on humans, depending on their age, gender and genetic makeup?"

Ecstasy, for example, is generally known to be dangerous at very high doses, causing kidney failure, heart attack or stroke among susceptible users. But only recently have scientists learned that ecstasy, a synthetic drug that causes a temporary state of empathy and good feelings, may permanently alter a person's sense of well-being by destroying the serotonin and dopamine neurons in the brain. If confirmed in further studies, this finding suggests that heavy users are at serious risk for anxiety and mood disorders for which there may be no cure.

The researchers say they don't expect knowledge such as this to end drug use or abuse. But they hope it will serve to begin a dialogue between parents and kids, teachers and students, scientists and legislators.

"Our country has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet we consume about half the drugs," Wilson said. "College dorm rooms in particular are often active, misguided psychopharmacology labs. What we hope is this book will prevent some very bad experiences and some very real tragedies."

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