Man holding a handful of pills
Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

Untangling Addiction

University of Birmingham researchers have been selected to receive funding as part of a new $50M Wellcome Leap programme, Untangling Addiction, which aims to develop new ways to address addiction, quantify addiction risk, and develop new treatments to aid recovery.

Dr Ali Mazaheri from Centre for Human Brain Health, and School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, has been awarded a multi-million-pound contract to investigate how metabolic, neurobiological and cognitive profiles can be combined to screen patients most susceptible to become addicted to opiate-based prescription painkillers after major surgery

He will lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the School of Psychology , the Institute for Inflammation and Ageing , Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, the University of Birmingham, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust.

From building detailed profiles we can better understand the patient’s likely response to pain management, and clinicians can build pain management plans that are appropriate to the patient’s post-surgery recovery.

Dr Ali Mazaheri, School of Pyschology

Dr Mazaheri stated, “Our diverse, multidisciplinary team aims to integrate expertise from psychology, neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and multi-omics to develop a model capable of identifying patients most susceptible to persistent opioid usage beyond 3 months post-surgery.

“From building these profiles we can better understand the patient’s likely response to pain management. Clinicians can build pain management plans that are appropriate to the patient’s post-surgery recovery, but also their longer-term wellbeing.”

Professor Fang Gao, Profess and NHS Consultant in Anaesthesia and Pain, said: “Opioids are used routinely and safely to treat acute pain during and after all major surgery. About 10% of patients typically have acute pain after surgery which is difficult to control in the hospital, but soon transition into chronic pain after they leave hospitals. It is these individuals who continue to need strong opioids, and have increased public health risks of opioid addiction. There has been a disconnection between the hospital and social care to identify those who are prone to addiction. Our project is timely funded to address this critical knowledge gap to identify those vulnerable individuals BEFORE surgery for effective prevention from the long term addition.”

The opioid crisis is a global public health emergency, impacting millions of individuals and communities. Each year, around 310 million major surgeries take place worldwide, including 6 million in the UK. Many people first encounter opioids when prescribed for post-surgery pain relief. While most discontinue use without issues, some become trapped in addiction. Identifying these subgroups provides insights for risk assessment and targeted interventions to combat the crisis

The Wellcome programme identified a critical gap in the understanding and treatment of substance use disorders and has funded 14 projects from institutions worldwide to address some of these key issues.