Risk factors in addiction, and the impact of culture on treatment efforts

July 25, 2022

Jesus Chavarria, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

Story and photo by Rob Rombouts

Jesus Chavarria wants to understand the causes of addiction, and how treatment efforts can better reflect cultural needs. Chavarria is joining the Department of Psychology as an Assistant Professor.

He completed his PhD at Florida State University, followed by a residency at the University of Chicago, and post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and London.

He has studied risk factors and mechanisms behind how addictions develop. In general, it is believed that people use alcohol and other substances for negative or positive reinforcement – either to take away or numb feelings, or to experience feelings of elation. Using alcohol administration studies with self-report measures, Chavarria and his collaborators found that 18-year old adolescent drinkers at risk for developing problem drinking experienced greater hedonic feelings or positive reinforcement, while the low-risk drinkers did not experience as strong of a hedonic response. This study found these strong reward responses among the youngest individuals to date, and are consistent with seminal research showing that young adult drinkers who feel more alcohol stimulation, liking and wanting are more likely to go on and develop an alcohol use disorder up to 10 years later.

Chavarria is also researching hangovers, to understand how and why they develop.

“Hangovers are the most experienced consequence related to alcohol use, with alcohol being the most used substance in Canada. Yet, hangovers are one of the least understood alcohol-related experiences,” he said. He wants to know how alcohol reward and other subjective responses lead to a hangover. “People who experience more liking and wanting experience more frequent hangovers. Do they also have more severe hangovers if they experience greater stimulation? Does the reward response lead to worse effects of hangovers? And are these reward responses associated with other biological factors, such as immune response, that contribute to hangover?”

“The ultimate goal is to understand how we can target subjective alcohol effects,” said Chavarria. “Is there medication that can target subjective reward responses? If we inform people how they may respond to alcohol, can we target their use?”

Another stream Chavarria has been involved in focused on creating culturally competent smoking-cessation programs. In the United States, African Americans have a higher prevalence of smoking ~17%, compared to a 14% national average. African Americans are also targeted more aggressively by tobacco companies, and are less likely to receive tobacco cessation treatments.

The research team developed a smoking cessation treatment that detailed the specific cultural harms African Americans faced, as well as the actions tobacco companies took to maintain African American customers. The study also removed hurdles to receiving treatment – paying for transport to the hospital where treatment sessions were held, providing treatment in a single session and providing participants with nicotine replacement stater packs for free.

Through these combined efforts, the culturally informed treatment led to a significant reduction in tobacco use up to six months later, and in increase in the use of nicotine replacement products.

“The next steps are to look at specifics within the treatment protocol to see which components may work best,” said Chavarria.

Chavarria wants to understand how the reward response and addiction develops. “Is heightened reward always there, or does it develop over time?”

“Some people will give up their children for the next hit. The power of addiction is almost awe-inspiring. What is so powerful about substance use that it can undo our evolutionary drive to procreate and care for our young, ,” he said. “What drives that? How powerful can something be for you to give up everything for that single experience?”

“I’ve had the opportunity to learn the research landscape here in Canada during my time at CAMH, and I know the research at Western is very strong and well respected, especially in the department of Psychology,” said Chavarria. “I’m looking forward to starting potentnial collaborations, especially with researchers in the Brain and Mind Institute.”