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Continuing the drug conversation: Professor to discuss treatment research in Red Wing

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As communities of all sizes grapple with the opioid crisis and drug abuse, University of Minnesota researchers are looking for innovative ways to treat addiction.

One of those researchers is Dr. Mark Thomas, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the U of M Medical School. He will discuss recent findings at a presentation 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at Red Wing Public Library. The event qualifies for continuing education credits through Red Wing Community Education and Recreation.

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Though new treatments are still years away from being put into practice, and won't totally replace psychosocial support for people struggling with drug addiction, Thomas said his goal is for attendees to come away from the presentation with hope.

“Hope for people who are suffering or people whose relatives are suffering,” he said.

Thomas is the scientific director of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction, a state-funded, multi-disciplinary collaboration “to advance research and treatment in the field of drug addiction,” according to the U of M website.

He said addiction research has traditionally centered on pharmacology and how drugs affect behavior. His work with neuroscience, the study of the brain and nervous system, instead seeks new therapies that do not necessarily mean new drugs. Thomas said his presentation will describe how neurostimulation could be used to disrupt the craving for addictive drugs in the brain — and ultimately reduce the demand for drugs.

What is neurostimulation? In a laboratory setting it entails using lights to influence brain activity. Though it sounds like science fiction, Thomas said related techniques have been used for almost two decades in Parkinson's disease research and treatment. His presentation will feature diagrams describing the technique as well as provide time for questions from the audience.

The event follows the Needles and Pills program in 2018 that brought together experts and community resources to address drug problems in Goodhue County. Efforts led to the county securing a nearly $500,000 grant to establish a drug treatment court.

One of the organizers of the event was Goodhue County Commissioner Paul Drotos. Since the program, Drotos said he’s been trying to study drug abuse and its effects in places like Goodhue County.

“The whole point is most of the problem is latent, it’s not visible,” Drotos said.

Educating the community and helping residents cope is Drotos’ top priority. He said based on the many Needles and Pills attendees, Goodhue County residents “have an appetite for reality and facts,” wanting to have a direct connection to each other.

It’s not about sensationalizing the tragedy that drugs cause in people’s lives, according to Drotos. Rather it’s about trying to help one another in the community.

Overdose deaths are on the rise in Minnesota, increasing almost sixfold between 2000 and 2016, according to the state health department. Prescription opioids and methadone accounted for most overdose deaths, with 194 reported in 2016.

Resources for substance use disorder are available at www.fast-trackermn.org.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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