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Economics and Behaviour: How one researcher is combining the two to study addictive disorders

AUTHOR: Crystal Mahadeo  

Not too long ago we had Brain Awareness week here at McMaster University. We were lucky enough to have several presentations that week from a wide range of speakers. One in particular came from a new addition to McMaster’s faculty, Dr. Michael Amlung. Dr. Amlung is the director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Addictions Laboratory (CNALab) associated with the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. He is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University. His talk, entitled, “Applications of Behavioural and Neuro-economics to Addictive Disorders” gave the audience insight into how he studies addictive disorders using the framework of behavioural economics to predict behaviour. His lab uses the recently opened bar lab (a lab designed to look and feel exactly like a bar) in the Boris Centre for simulations, which allows for the examination of cue related behaviour for those with alcohol addiction. His research team compares responses of subjects with alcohol addiction in the bar lab to their responses in neutral spaces to determine differences in their behaviour.

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I had the opportunity to touch base with Dr. Amlung and ask him a few questions about his interesting research in the area of addictive disorders.


Q:  What first got you interested in behavioural and neuro-economics (the idea of blending psychiatry and economics to predict behaviour)?


A: I have always been fascinated by the brain and how processing in neural circuits gives rise to complex human behaviours such as decision-making and motivation. I am also interested in how the brain functions differently in individuals with psychiatric illness, especially substance use disorders. My earliest exposure to this field was as an undergraduate student when I studied the effects of lesions to the ventral striatum on impulsive delay discounting and cocaine response in a rodent model of stimulant addiction. During graduate school, I shifted my focus to research on humans, but quickly realized that a major problem with many of the methods that we use to measure motivation to use drugs and alcohol is that they are inherently subjective (i.e., an individual’s level of “craving”). Behavioural economics, however, provides an array of tools to assess these processes using objective units (money, number of drinks, etc.). I also like that behavioural and neuro-economics are highly interdisciplinary, which allows me to interact with colleagues from many different fields (psychology, neuroscience, economics).


Q:  What are you currently working on in your lab? 


A: My lab is still in the process of rolling out new projects and applying for grants to fund our future research. We are also building our research team, which includes four research assistants who have already started working in the lab as well as a new MiNDS student who will be beginning in the fall. We are currently conducting one study examining motivational variables in individuals who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Heavy drinking smokers often report that drinking can serve as a trigger for smoking (and vice versa), but the underlying motivational processes contributing to this “cross-commodity” effect are not well understood. We are testing one hypothesis that exposure to alcohol-related environmental cues in our bar lab dynamically increases the relative value of alcohol and cigarettes, which we can measure using behavioural economic measures of alcohol/tobacco demand. Another focus of the lab is examining structural brain correlates of impulsive delay discounting in alcohol and nicotine use disorders, in collaboration with Drs. Luciano Minuzzi and Nicholas Bock. Finally, we have an emerging collaboration with the Forensic Psychiatry Program at St. Joe’s (Dr. Kaitlyn McLachlan). We received a grant to conduct a study of behavioural economic decision making indices of alcohol use and misuse in a forensic mental health sample. These are exciting times and we are looking forward to a productive year.


Q: What are the big questions that your research is currently trying to answer?


A: The overarching question that I am most interested in is how people make choices, including both good/healthy choices and bad/unhealthy choices. My work is attempting to understand the factors that contribute to decisions to engage in addictive behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, gambling, etc. I am also interested in how the brain supports these decisions and how neural circuitry underlying reward processing and cognitive control is affected by addictive disorders. Ultimately, my hope is that the research that my lab can be translated into more effective treatments for individuals with various forms of addiction.


Q: Tell me a little bit more about The Bar Lab that opened 6 months ago and the planning that went into its creation.


A: We are very excited about the bar laboratory, and we are one of a small handful of research centres in Canada with this type of facility. That our bar lab is also housed within a psychiatric hospital is even more unique. In the last six months, our focus has been to create a realistic bar environment that will allow us to study drinking in a naturalistic context. We spent a lot of time thinking about the types of cues we wanted (the number and variety of alcohol bottles, the artwork and other décor, and the lighting). These may seem like minor details, but they are very important in creating an environment that helps to suspend the reality that our participants are in a research lab. Equally important, however, was the need to ensure the safety and security of our participants, staff, and the patients at the hospital. We have implemented a number of procedures, including keeping all alcohol under double lock and taking regular inventory. We have also installed a closed-circuit video camera system that serves two purposes. First, we are able to monitor participants while they are in the bar to ensure that study procedures are being followed, and second, we are able to record their behaviour for later analysis (i.e., frequency of sips, nonverbal behaviour, etc.). We also look forward to possibly incorporating the bar lab into treatment interventions for individuals with addictive disorders.


Thank you Dr. Amlung for taking the time to answer these questions and welcome to the MiNDS program!