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Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
Email: mfarris@wwltv.com | Twitter: @megfarriswwl

NEW ORLEANS -- A national survey found one out of six young adults have used illicit drugs in the last month.

Brain scientists now know why just one use of crystal meth (methamphetamine) can make a person feel hooked. And they are passing on their research to the community to join the battle on drug addiction.

They came to hear the latest brain research on how drugs addiction changes the brain, which then changes a person's behavior. Future doctors, teachers and those on the treatment front line were hoping for answers from one of the world's leading brain addiction experts.

One lesson: demons are nonexistent. The brain is just another organ. Its job is behavior.

'It's terrible. The stigma is what we are fighting against addiction. All it is is a chronic relapsing disorder,' said Dr. Luigi Pulvirenti, a professor of neuropharmacology and President and Scientific Director at the Neuroscience School of Advanced Studies in Cortona, Italy.

'Addictions are an illness and this is an illness. This is a disease of the brain,' Dr. Nicolas Bazan said about addiction.

Dr. Bazan is director of the LSU Neuroscience Center, and he opened up his labs and knowledge to the public during Brain Awareness Week, hoping to show how scientists' research uncovers brain function and dysfunction to conquer terrible brain diseases from Alzheimer's and stroke to addiction. He remembers what happened in the 1980s with designer street drugs.

'One of these synthetic drugs being sold in the street, all of a sudden produced Parkinson's disease in people in their 20 and early 30s,' Dr. Bazan said.

Research is showing values are different in people with addiction illness.

'Punishment is something we (healthy people) fear. But the brain of an addict does not fear punishment. We have to reconsider the whole picture in a whole different light,' said Dr. Pulvirenti about treatment versus prison.

'We know by basic psychology that reinforcement works much better than punishment.'

More treatment could work better than more jails.

'(Addicts have) a high motivational drive (to use). So figure a car where the steering and the braking system fail at the same time,' explained Dr. Pulvirenti about how the addicted brain works.

Dr. Pulvirenti's research helped identify the role of specific brain chemicals in the process of drug addiction and mood disorders. His work at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla focuses on the development of new medication for methamphetamine and cocaine dependence and for depression, as well as on the understanding of molecular changes involved in the pathophysiology of neurological diseases and in the biochemistry of emotional behavior, according to the NSAS website.

He believes there will be personalized medicine and precision therapy in the future.

'We've getting closer every day,' he said. 'Smart medicines and vaccines are being studied now for addiction.' The doctors said as high as 80 percent of addicted people started with another untreated brain condition such as depression, anxiety or mania.

For each dollar spent on prevention, $7 is saved in treatment and other costs.

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