Dec. 7, 2001
Volume XXXIV, No. 48



Holiday Happenings


Johnson receives Hazelden honor for research in alcoholism

Photo of Drs. Johnson and Wells Dr. Bankole Johnson is pictured with his wife, Dr. Lynda Wells, associate professor in the department of anesthesiology.

Dr. Bankole A. Johnson, Wurzbach Distinguished Professor at the Health Science Center and pioneer investigator in the areas of alcoholism and drug addiction, has been selected to receive the 2001 Dan Anderson Research Award. The award, sponsored by the Butler Center for Research and Learning at Hazelden, recognizes distinguished researchers who advance the scientific knowledge of addiction recovery. Founded in 1949, the Hazelden Foundation is an internationally renowned, non-profit organization that provides an extensive range of information on and recovery services for alcohol and drug addictions.

Dr. Johnson, deputy chairman for research in the department of psychiatry and director of the Southwest Texas Addiction Research and Technology Center (START), was recognized for innovative contributions in the development of interventions for alcohol addiction. He was selected for the Anderson Award for his recently published paper titled, "Ondansetron for reduction of drinking among biologically predisposed alcoholic patients: A randomized controlled trial," by Johnson, B.A., Roache, J.D., Javors, M.A., Di Clemente, C.C., Cloninger, C.R., Prihoda, T.J., Bornick, P.S., Ait-Dauod, N., and Hensler, J., published in JAMA, Aug. 23, 2000: 248(8): 963-971.

The major findings of Dr. Johnson's ingenious study demonstrate that the ondansetron treatment significantly decreases the number of drinks consumed per day in early-onset alcoholics. In addition, participants with early-onset alcoholism experienced increased periods of abstinence. This is the first study that successfully uses medication to achieve abstinence in biologically predisposed alcoholics, and it also is the first investigation that demonstrates the importance of tailoring pharmacotherapy in accordance with the subtype of alcoholism.

"Ondansetron works by reducing midbrain and cortical release of dopamine," Dr. Johnson said. "The functional state of the serotonin receptor is genetically modulated. Therefore, the interaction between one of these genetic variants and chronic drinking among early-onset alcoholics appears to reduce serotonergic transmission. As a result, post-synaptic cells try to compensate by increasing their numbers to compensate for the dearth of serotonin." Dr. Johnson said ondansetron is probably effective because it blocks a large number of these post-synaptic receptors and reduces dopamine function.

The honorary panel members who reviewed the nominations at the Butler Center "were especially impressed with Dr. Johnson's systematic, scientific approach to the study of addiction and describe his work as first-rate and remarkable," said Pat Owen, director of the Butler Center and executive vice president of Hazelden. The panel was particularly impressed with Dr. Johnson's ability to combine typology research with medication research, and appreciated the dosing strategy. Panel members commented favorably about Dr. Johnson's personal characteristics, "designating him as a good role model and mentor to researchers," Owen said. Dr. R. Adron Harris, the M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Professor and renowned director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin, said the award is "a great honor and very well deserved."

Dr. Johnson will attend the award ceremony at the Hazelden facility in Center City, Minn., on May 17, 2002. Previous winners of the Hazelden Award include the following distinguished researchers: Dr. Henri Begleiter, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the College of Medicine at the State University of New York in Brooklyn; Dr. Richard Longabaugh, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and associate director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Dr. Dace Svikis, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore; Dr. Michael C. Fiore, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, department of medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Dr. Stephen T. Higgins, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, University of Vermont, Burlington.

The drug ondansetron offers hope for effective treatment to individuals who suffer from early-onset alcoholism. Moreover, the drug can be given to practicing alcoholics, offering help in the midst of addiction. Dr. Johnson's research "has made a significant advance in thinking about medication development for addictions," Owen said.