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Arts and Health as Prescriptions for the Future

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Great to join world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming for a session at the virtual 2021 Lake Nona Impact Forum. This session, held on April 22, was titled the “Arts and Health as Prescriptions for the Future.” The session gave us some time to reflect on the successful launch of the Sound Health initiative, a partnership between NIH, the Kennedy Center, and the National Endowment for the Arts. We also discussed how Sound Health has fostered growing research interest in music and the arts and its impact on health. Best of all, I got to join a world-class artist to conclude with a song. It’s a number that she and I pre-recorded and which should resonate with everyone as we work our way closer to the pandemic’s end: “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

Risky Business: Prescription Drug Abuse Among Teens

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First-term finals are nearly upon us and sadly a disturbing percentage of high school seniors are abusing stimulants Adderall (dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate), which are prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These drugs increase alertness, attention, and energy the same way cocaine does—by boosting the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Even though these drugs are legal, they’re quite dangerous if not used properly. Taking high doses can cause irregular heartbeat, heart failure, or seizures. High doses of these stimulants can lead to hostility or feelings of paranoia. So, rather than popping pills, it’s a lot safer—and smarter—to boost your grades the old-school way: by studying.


Small Study Suggests Approved Insomnia Drug Can Aid in Opioid Recovery

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inset of suvorexant blocking receptors for orexin, a sleeping woman

Opioid use disorders (OUD) now threaten the health and lives of far too many young and adult Americans. While getting treatment is a key first step to recovery, overcoming an opioid addiction often comes with brutal withdrawal symptoms, including bad bouts of insomnia that are often untreatable with traditional prescription sleep medications. These medications act as sedatives, making them unsafe for people in OUD recovery.

But now, researchers have found that an approved drug for insomnia that works differently than other sleep medications could offer some needed help for the sleeplessness that affects those overcoming an opioid addiction [1]. The drug, known as suvorexant (Belsomra ®), was provided in a study to people during and immediately after tapering off opioids, and it allowed them to sleep significantly more during this week-long period. Suvorexant also helped to reduce their opioid withdrawal and craving.

This study, which received support from NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative certainly offers promising news. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved suvorexant to treat insomnia in 2014, and it is available for off-label use to help people overcoming an OUD.

The good news, however, comes with a major caveat. This early clinical trial had relatively small enrollment numbers, and larger studies are definitely needed to follow up and confirm the initial results.

The latest findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, come from a team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, led by Andrew Huhn. He and colleagues recognized sleep disturbances as a severe problem during recovery. They wondered whether suvorexant might help.

Suvorexant doesn’t actively sedate people like other sleeping medications. Suvorexant works by targeting orexin, a biochemical made in the brain that helps keep you awake [2]. Interestingly, orexin signals also have been implicated in opioid withdrawal symptoms, sleep disturbances, and drug-seeking behaviors.

Thirty-eight people entered the Hopkins study, and 26 completed it. Their average age was about 40, with close to equal numbers of white and Black participants. Most were male, and all were undergoing supervised withdrawal treatment with buprenorphine/naloxone, which is used in combination as a medication-assisted treatment for OUD.

To find out if suvorexant helped, the researchers measured total sleep time nightly using wireless devices that recorded brain activity and movement in people taking either 20 milligrams or 40 milligrams of suvorexant versus a placebo. The researchers also used standard methods to assess symptoms of opioid withdrawal, along with suvorexant’s potential for abuse.

The data showed that people taking suvorexant over four days while tapering off opioids slept about 90 minutes longer per night on average. They also continued to sleep for an extra hour a night on average in the four days following the tapering period. The researchers note that these increases in sleep duration far exceed the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s threshold for clinically meaningful improvement.

The researchers also didn’t see any differences in adverse events between those taking suvorexant versus a placebo. They also note that the main side effect of suvorexant in general is feeling sleepy the next day as the drug wears off slowly. There also wasn’t any evidence that suvorexant might come with a risk for drug abuse.

However, because the study was small, it lacked the needed statistical power to determine meaningful differences between the two doses of suvorexant. The study also didn’t include many women. But overall, the evidence that suvorexant or even other medications that target orexin could improve OUD treatment appears quite promising.

The NIH’s HEAL Initiative has launched over 600 research projects across the country. These studies cover a range of science and health care needs. But a common thread running through these projects is a desire to enhance the evidence base for lifesaving OUD interventions. Another is a commitment to discover better ways to help people recover from an OUD, and these latest data on suvorexant show this commitment in action.

References:

[1] Suvorexant ameliorated sleep disturbance, opioid withdrawal, and craving during a buprenorphine taper. Huhn AS, Finan PH, Gamaldo CE, Hammond AS, Umbricht A, Bergeria CL, Strain EC, Dunn KE. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Jun 22;14(650):eabn8238.

[2] The hypocretin/orexin system. Ebrahim IO, et al. J R Soc Med. 2002 May;95(5):227-30.

Links:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)

Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

Andrew Huhn (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore)

NIH Support: National Institute on Drug Abuse


Advancing Access to Hearing Health Care

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A group of older adults laugh together at something being said
Credit: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

By 2050, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 700 million people—or one in every 10 people around the globe—will have disabling hearing loss. In the United States alone, hearing loss affects an estimated 30 million people [1]. Hearing loss can be frustrating, isolating, and even dangerous. It is also associated with dementia, depression, anxiety, reduced mobility, and falls.

Although hearing technologies, such as hearing aids, have improved, not everyone has equal access to these advancements. In fact, though hearing aids and other assistive devices can significantly improve quality of life, only one in four U.S. adults who could benefit from these devices has ever used one. Why? People commonly report encountering economic barriers, such as the high cost of hearing aids and limited access to hearing health care. For some, the reasons are more personal. They may not believe that hearing aids are effective, or they may worry about a perceived negative association with aging. [2].

As the lead federal agency supporting research initiatives to prevent, detect, and treat hearing loss, NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) conducts and funds research that identifies ways to break down barriers to hearing health care. Decades of NIDCD research informed a recent landmark announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) creating a new category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. When the regulation takes effect (expected in 2022), millions of people who have trouble hearing will be able to purchase less expensive hearing aids without a medical exam, prescription, or fitting by an audiologist.

This exciting development has been on the horizon at NIDCD for some time. Back in 2009, NIDCD’s Working Group on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults with Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss created a blueprint for research priorities.

The working group’s blueprint led to NIDCD funding of more than 60 research projects spanning the landscape of accessible and affordable hearing health care issues. One study showed that people with hearing loss can independently adjust the settings [3] on their hearing devices in response to changing acoustic environments and, when given the ability to control their own hearing aid settings, they were generally more satisfied with the sound of the devices than with the audiologist fit [4].

In 2017, the first randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial comparing an over-the-counter delivery model [5] of hearing aids with traditional fitting by an audiologist also found that hearing aid users in both groups reported similar benefits. A 2019 follow-up study [6] confirmed these results, supporting the viability of a direct-to-consumer service delivery model. A small-business research grant funded by NIDCD led to the first FDA-approved self-fitting hearing aid.

Meanwhile, in 2016, NIDCD co-sponsored a consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The report, Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability, which was developed by an independent expert panel, recommended that the FDA create and regulate a new category of over-the-counter hearing devices to improve access to affordable hearing aids for adults with perceived mild-to-moderate hearing loss. These devices will not be intended for children or for adults with more severe hearing loss.

In sum, this targeted portfolio of NIDCD-funded research—together with the research blueprint and the NASEM consensus report—provided a critical foundation for the 2021 FDA rule creating the new class of OTC hearing aids. As a result of these research and policy efforts, this FDA rule will make some types of hearing aids less expensive and easier to obtain, potentially improving the health, safety, and well-being of millions of Americans.

Transforming hearing health care for adults in the U.S. remains a public health priority. The NIH applauds the scientists who provided critical evidence leading to the new category of hearing aids, and NIDCD encourages them to redouble their efforts. Gaps in hearing health care access remain to be closed.

The NIDCD actively solicits applications for research projects to fill these gaps and continue identifying barriers to care and ways to improve access. The NIDCD will also continue to help the public understand the importance of hearing health care with resources on its website, such as Hearing: A Gateway to Our World video and the Adult Hearing Health Care webpage.

References:

[1] Hearing loss prevalence in the United States. Lin F, Niparko J, Ferrucci L. Arch Intern Med. 2011 Nov 14;171(20):1851-1852.

[2] Research drives more accessible, affordable hearing care. Tucci DL, King K. The Hearing Journal. May 2020.

[3] A “Goldilocks” approach to hearing aid self-fitting: Ear-canal output and speech intelligibility index. Mackersie C, Boothroyd A, Lithgow, A. Ear and Hearing. Jan 2019.

[4] Self-adjusted amplification parameters produce large between-subject variability and preserve speech intelligibility. Nelson PB, Perry TT, Gregan M, VanTasell, D. Trends in Hearing. 7 Sep 2018.

[5] The effects of service-delivery model and purchase price on hearing-aid outcomes in older adults: A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Humes LE, Rogers SE, Quigley TM, Main AK, Kinney DL, Herring C. American Journal of Audiology. 1 Mar 2017.

[6] A follow-up clinical trial evaluating the consumer-decides service delivery model. Humes LE, Kinney DL, Main AK, Rogers SE. American Journal of Audiology. 15 Mar 2019.

Links:

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) (NIH)

Funded Research Projects on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care (NIDCD)

Adult Hearing Health Care (NIDCD)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the ninth in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


Research to Address the Real-Life Challenges of Opioid Crisis

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A man and two women each sit in white cushioned chairs talking on a stage.
Caption: NIDA Director Nora Volkow (center), HEAL Initiative Director Rebecca Baker (right), and I discuss NIH’s latest efforts to combat opioid crisis. Credit: Pierce Harman for Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit 2022.

While great progress has been made in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s opioid crisis continues to evolve in unexpected ways. The opioid crisis, which worsened during the pandemic and now involves the scourge of fentanyl, claims more than 70,000 lives each year in the United States [1]. But throughout the pandemic, NIH has continued its research efforts to help people with a substance use disorder find the help that they so need. These efforts include helping to find relief for the millions of Americans who live with severe and chronic pain.

Recently, I traveled to Atlanta for the Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022. While there, I moderated an evening fireside chat with two of NIH’s leaders in combating the opioid crisis: Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and Rebecca Baker, director of Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) initiative. What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.

Tabak: Let’s start with Nora. When did the opioid crisis begin, and how has it changed over the years

Volkow: It started just before the year 2000 with the over-prescription of opioid medications. People were becoming addicted to them, many from diverted product. By 2010, CDC developed guidelines that decreased the over-prescription. But then, we saw a surge in heroin use. That turned the opioid crisis into two problems: prescription opioids and heroin.

In 2016, we encountered the worst scourge yet. It is fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is easily manufactured, and it’s easier than other opioids to hide and transport across the border. That makes this drug very profitable.

What we have seen during the pandemic is the expansion of fentanyl use in the United States. Initially, fentanyl made its way to the Northeast; now it’s everywhere. Initially, it was used to contaminate heroin; now it’s used to contaminate cocaine, methamphetamine, and, most recently, illicit prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and stimulants. With fentanyl contaminating all these drugs, we’re also seeing a steep rise in mortality from cocaine and methamphetamine use in African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska natives.

Tabak: What about teens? A recent study in the journal JAMA reported for the first time in a decade that overdose deaths among U.S. teens rose dramatically in 2020 and kept rising through 2021 [2]. Is fentanyl behind this alarming increase?

Volkow: Yes, and it has us very concerned. The increase also surprised us. Over the past decade, we have seen a consistent decrease in adolescent drug use. In fact, there are some drugs that have the lowest usage rates that we’ve ever recorded. To observe this more than doubling of overdose deaths from fentanyl before the COVID pandemic was a major surprise.

Adolescents don’t typically use heroin, nor do they seek out fentanyl. Our fear is adolescents are misusing illicit prescriptions contaminated with fentanyl. Because an estimated 30-40 percent of those tainted pills contain levels of fentanyl that can kill you, it becomes a game of Russian roulette. This dangerous game is being played by adolescents who may just be experimenting with illicit pills.

Tabak: For people with substance use disorders, there are new ways to get help. In fact, one of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic is the emergence of telehealth. If we can learn to navigate the various regulatory issues, do you see a place for telehealth going forward?

Volkow: When you have a crisis like this one, there’s a real need to accelerate interventions and innovation like telehealth. It certainly existed before the pandemic, and we knew that telehealth was beneficial for the treatment of substance use disorders. But it was very difficult to get reimbursement, making access extremely limited.

When COVID overwhelmed emergency departments, people with substance use disorders could no longer get help there. Other interventions were needed, and telehealth helped fill the void. It also had the advantage of reaching rural populations in states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, where easy access to treatment or unique interventions can be challenging. In many prisons and jails, administrators worried about bringing web-based technologies into their facilities. So, in partnership with the Justice Department, we have created networks that now will enable the entry of telehealth into jails and prisons.

Tabak: Rebecca, it’s been four years since the HEAL initiative was announced at this very summit in 2018. How is the initiative addressing this ever-evolving crisis?

Baker: We’ve launched over 600 research projects across the country at institutions, hospitals, and research centers in a broad range of scientific areas. We’re working to come up with new treatment options for pain and addiction. There’s exciting research underway to address the craving and sleep disruption caused by opioid withdrawal. This research has led to over 20 investigational new drug applications to the FDA. Some are for repurposed drugs, compounds that have already been shown to be safe and effective for treating other health conditions that may also have value for treating addiction. Some are completely novel. We have also initiated the first testing of an opioid vaccine, for oxycodone, to prevent relapse and overdose in high-risk individuals.

Tabak: What about clinical research?

Baker: We’re testing multiple different treatments for both pain and addiction. Not everyone with pain is the same, and not every treatment is going to work the same for everyone. We’re conducting clinical trials in real-world settings to find out what works best for patients. We’re also working to implement lifesaving, evidence-based interventions into places where people seek help, including faith, community, and criminal justice settings.

Tabak: The pandemic highlighted inequities in our health-care system. These inequities afflict individuals and populations who are struggling with addiction and overdose. Nora, what needs to be done to address the social determinants of racial disparities?

Volkow: This is an extraordinarily important question. As you noted, certain racial and ethnic groups had disproportionately higher mortality rates from COVID. We have seen the same with overdose deaths. For example, we know that the most important intervention for preventing overdoses is to initiate medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or vivitrol. But Black Americans are initiated on these medications at least five years later than white Americans. Similarly, Black Americans also are less likely to receive the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.

That’s not right. We must ask what are the core causes of limited access to high-quality health care? Low income is a major contributing factor. Helping people get an education is one of the most important factors to address it. Another factor is distrust of the medical system. When racial and ethnic discrimination is compounded by discrimination because a person has a substance use disorder, you can see why it becomes very difficult for some to seek help. As a society, we certainly need to address racial discrimination. But we also need to address discrimination against substance use disorders in people of all races who are vulnerable.

Baker: Our research is tackling these barriers head on with a direct focus on stigma. As Nora alluded to, oftentimes providers may not offer lifesaving medication to some patients, and we’ve developed and are testing research training to help providers recognize and address their own biases and behaviors in caring for different populations.

We have supported research on the drivers of equity. A big part of this is engaging with people with lived experience and making sure that the interventions being designed are feasible in the real world. Not everyone has access to health insurance, transportation, childcare—the support that they may need to sustain treatment and recovery. In short, our research is seeking ways to enhance linkage to treatment.

Nora mentioned the importance of telehealth in improving equity. That’s another research focus, as well as developing tailored, culturally appropriate interventions for addressing pain and addiction. When you have this trust issue, you can’t always go in with a prescription or a recommendation from a physician. So in American and Alaskan native communities, we’re integrating evidence-based prevention approaches with traditional practices like wellness gatherings, cooking together, use of sage and spirituality, along with community support, and seeing if that encourages and increases the uptake of these prevention approaches in communities that need it so much.

Tabak: The most heartbreaking impact of the opioid crisis has been the infants born dependent on opioids. Rebecca, what’s being done to help the very youngest victims of the opioid crisis born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, or NOWS?

Baker: Thanks for asking about the infants. Babies with NOWS undergo withdrawal at birth and cry inconsolably, often with extreme stomach upset and sometimes even with seizures. Our research found that hospitals across the country vary greatly in how they treat these babies. Our program, ACT NOW, or Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal, aims to provide concrete guidance for nurses in the NICU treating these infants. One of the studies that we call Eat, Sleep, Console focuses on the abilities of the baby. Our researchers are testing if the ability to eat, sleep, or be consoled increases bonding with the mother and if it reduces time in the hospital, as well as other long-term health outcomes.

In addition to that NOWS program, we’ve also launched the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, or HBCD, that seeks to understand the long-term consequences of opioid exposure together with all the other environmental and other factors the baby experiences as they grow up. The hope is that together these studies will inform future prevention and treatment efforts for both mental health and also substance use and addiction.

Tabak: As the surge in heroin use and appearance of fentanyl has taught us, the opioid crisis has ever-changing dynamics. It tells us that we need better prevention strategies. Rebecca, could you share what HEAL is doing about prevention?

Baker: Prevention has always been a core component of the HEAL Initiative in a number of ways. The first is by preventing unnecessary opioid exposures through enhanced and evidence-based pain management. HEAL is supporting research on new small molecules, new devices, new biologic therapeutics that could treat pain and distinct pain conditions without opioids. And we’re also researching and providing guidance for clinicians on strategies for managing pain without medication, including acupuncture and physical therapy. They can often be just as effective and more sustainable.

HEAL is also working to address risky opioid use outside of pain management, especially in high-risk groups. That includes teens and young adults who may be experimenting, people lacking stable housing, patients who are on high-dose opioids for pain management, or they maybe have gone off high-dose opioids but still have them in their possession.

Finally, to prevent overdose we have to give naloxone to the people who need it. The HEALing Communities Study has taken some really innovative approaches to providing naloxone in libraries, on the beach, and places where overdoses are actually happening, not just in medical settings. And I think that will be, in our fight against the overdose crisis, a key tool.

Volkow: Larry, I’d like to add a few words on prevention. There are evidence-based interventions that have been shown to be quite effective for preventing substance use among teenagers and young adults. And yet, they are not implemented. We have evidence-based interventions that work for prevention. We have evidence-based interventions that work for treatment. But we don’t provide the resources for their implementation, nor do we train the personnel that can carry it over.

Science can give us tools, but if we do not partner at the next level for their implementation, those tools do not have the impact they should have. That’s why I always bring up the importance of policy in the implementation phase.

Tabak: Rebecca, the opioid crisis got started with a lack of good options for treating pain. Could you share with us how HEAL’s research efforts are addressing the needs of millions of Americans who experience both chronic pain and opioid use disorder?

Baker: It’s so important to remember people with pain. We can’t let our efforts to combat the opioid crisis make us lose sight of the needs of the millions of Americans with pain. One hundred million Americans experience pain; half of them have severe pain, daily pain, and 20 million have such severe pain that they can’t do things that are important to them in their life, family, job, other activities that bring their life meaning.

HEAL recognizes that these individuals need better options. New non-addictive pain treatments. But as you say, there is a special need for people with a substance use disorder who also have pain. They desperately need new and better options. And so we recently, through the HEAL Initiative, launched a new trials network that couples medication-based treatment for opioid use disorders, so that’s methadone or buprenorphine, with new pain-management strategies such as psychotherapy or yoga in the opioid use disorder treatment setting so that you’re not sending them around to lots of different places. And our hope is that this integrated approach will address some of the fragmented healthcare challenges that often results in poor care for these patients.

My last point would be that some patients need opioids to function. We can’t forget as we make sure that we are limiting risky opioid use that we don’t take away necessary opioids for these patients, and so our future research will incorporate ways of making sure that they receive needed treatment while also preventing them from the risks of opioid use disorder.

Tabak: Rebecca, let me ask you one more question. What do you want the folks here to remember about HEAL?

Baker: HEAL stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term, and nobody knows more than the people in this room how challenging and important that really is. We’ve heard a little bit about the great promise of our research and some of the advances that are coming through our research pipeline, new treatments, new guidance for clinicians and caregivers. I want everyone to know that we want to work with you. By working together, I’m confident that we will tailor these new advances to meet the individual needs of the patients and populations that we serve.

Tabak: Nora, what would you like to add?

Volkow: This afternoon, I met with two parents who told me the story of how they lost their daughter to an overdose. They showed me pictures of this fantastic girl, along with her drawings. Whenever we think about overdose deaths in America, the sheer number—75,000—can make us indifferent. But when you can focus on one person and feel the love surrounding that life, you remember the value of this work.

Like in COVID, substance use disorders are a painful problem that we’re all experiencing in some way. They may have upset our lives. But they may have brought us together and, in many instances, brought out the best that humans can do. The best, to me, is caring for one another and taking the responsibility of helping those that are most vulnerable. I believe that science has a purpose. And here we have a purpose: to use science to bring solutions that can prevent and treat those suffering from substance use disorders.

Tabak: Thanks to both of you for this enlightening conversation.

References:

[1] Drug overdose deaths, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 22, 2022.

[2] Trends in drug overdose deaths among US adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. Friedman J. et al. JAMA. 2022 Apr 12;327(14):1398-1400.

Links:

Video: Evening Plenary with NIH’s Lawrence Tabak, Nora Volkow, and Rebecca Baker (Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022)

SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)

Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Fentanyl (NIDA)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term®(HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

Rebecca Baker (HEAL/NIH)

Nora Volkow (NIDA)


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