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March 7, 2014
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Students organize addiction series

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Panel discussions with recovering addicts, brain studies, an art display and lantern ceremony are among the ways Slippery Rock University will raise awareness of addiction causes and treatment through its March 10-13 "Peace, Love and Brains!" program.

Seventeen psychology students organized the educational series as SRU's method for marking the worldwide Brain Awareness Campaign. The global initiative, launched by The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, brings attention to brain research and advocates for science funding.

While focusing on drugs, alcohol and nicotine's addictive effects on the brain, SRU students said they hope to promote overall brain health. Student research opportunities will include lab work dissecting sheep brains to study brain anatomy.

The final event is a floating lantern ceremony in front of Advanced Technology and Science Hall.

"Students chose to focus on the brain basis of addiction because they believed drug use was an important topic for college students and because they believed that stigma associated with addiction might be reduced if they could spread the word about the brain basis of the disease," said Jennifer Willford, SRU assistant professor of psychology.

More than 23 million Americans aged 12 or older have used an illicit drug or abused pain relievers, stimulants or tranquilizers in the past month, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The abuse exacts more than $600 billion in annual costs related to health care, crime and lost work productivity, the institute reports.

"Addiction being a disease that can affect anyone, students prioritized reducing stigma as another main goal of this project," Willford said. "Understanding the neurobiological model of the disease would help others learn that addiction is due to adaptations in the brain caused by chronic exposure to drugs that lead to changes in how we experience reward and pleasure, our ability to control craving and memories for drug-related cues."

Holly Schott, a psychology major from Warren, said the event is a "celebration of the brain," with an emphasis on brain biology.

"We are interested in addiction because it is a brain disease and as psychology students, we want to study its effects on the brain and how it can change a person and his or her life," she said. "It is a problem among college students. I feel like college is the time a lot of young adults are exposed to drugs and are willing to try them in order to fit in. They'll try one drug, then another, and so enough it can easily lead to addiction."

Students planned and will implement the campus awareness program, and they will learn more about the topic through reading current research, a site visit to an addiction treatment center and by writing a collaborative scientific review paper.

"To counter the stigma of addiction, we need to better educate the public," Scott said. "Addicts are normal people too, just with a brain disease."

Sarah Falkowitz, a psychology major from Fairport, N.Y., said her involvement is both academic and personal.

"I have known people in my life who have had problems with addiction," she said. "My uncle was an alcoholic and ultimately died from liver failure caused by his alcoholism. I also watched my friend's mom suffer from alcoholism and it caused a lot of problems with her family for a really long time."

Alex Exler, a psychology major from Moon Township, said he hopes to work in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

"Addiction is a habit that becomes wired in the brain," he said. "Simply put, addiction is when your body requires an abundance of a substance to feel normal. Explaining what addiction really is and how it happens can counter the stigma behind it.

Emma Paulson, a psychology major from Greensburg, said she hopes the series will counter stereotypes.

"Through the media and other outlets, people begin to form certain judgmental ideas about addiction without really learning the facts," she said. "People who suffer from addiction are often seen as lazy criminals or defective in some way when in fact addiction is a disease that they struggle with every day."

Jillian Chappel, a psychology major from Waynesburg, said she is chairing the hands-on brain research night, called Brains Unplugged.

"We are having a neuroscience lab involving presentation on a biological basis of addiction, dissecting sheep brains and learning about the structures of the brain that are involved in addiction," she said.

Amy Marrotte, a psychology major from Cleveland, said she became aware of Brain Awareness Week in SRU's "Behavioral Neuroscience" class in psychology.

"The more we educate ourselves, the more apt we are to see things from another perspective," she said. "We can begin to open our mind to other ways of thinking about diseases like addiction. All in all, by exploring topics like addiction and actively trying to make sense of the world around us, we become not only great critical thinkers but well-rounded individuals."

SRU's programs will be offered from 6-8 p.m., March 10-13, in 309 Vincent Science Center. They include:

•March 10: Brain Awareness Week art gallery of work created by students illustrating the effects of drugs on the brain

•March 11: Brains Unplugged sheep brain dissection

•March 12: Documentary viewing

•March 13: Addiction panel followed by floating lantern ceremony starting in the Advanced Technology and Science Hall Auditorium and moving to the SGA Gazebo.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.