Mallory Powell


College: Medicine

Researcher Seeks to Identify Best Medications to Treat Drug Abuse, Improve Research Capacity at UK

Published: Oct 21, 2013



LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 21, 2013) – Craig Rush is devoted to improving the lives of people who struggle with drug abuse by identifying treatments that allow them to stop or reduce their drug use. Since joining the University of Kentucky in 1999, he has come to wear several hats. He is the director of UK’s Laboratory of Human Behavioral Pharmacology, serves as assistant vice president for research, and holds professorships in the departments of behavioral health, psychiatry and psychology so that he can help train the next generation of researchers.


But it was a combination of choice and chance that led him to the field of human behavioral pharmacology and drug abuse.


“I can remember as a little boy, talking to my mother and saying ‘I think I want to do something with drug abuse,’” he said. “I was six or seven. I remember it clearly — we were in the car. I thought I would be a drug cop, something to help people make their lives a little better.”


He later came to the field of human behavioral pharmacology “purely by accident.” He finished his Masters degree in psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and taught at a community college for three years. “But I didn’t want to teach intro to psychology for the rest of my life,” he said. “Everything I read about drug abuse was saying ‘We don’t know much about this, there needs to be more research’. And I thought, ‘I could do that research.’”


With that motivation, Rush applied to a doctoral program at University of Vermont to work with a researcher who studied drug abuse through rodent experiments. “I knew I wanted to study drug abuse, but I had always thought about doing it in a lab, not with people,” said Rush. But, by chance, his application was forwarded to a researcher who studied human behavioral pharmacology. “We really hit it off,” said Rush.


Some 20 years later, Rush is a leader in the field of human behavioral pharmacology, with a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University, more than 100 peer-reviewed publications to his credit and over $35 million of competitively awarded research funding through his various roles and collaborations.


Specifically, he is committed to determining what medications, or combinations of medications, can help people stop or reduce their use of stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. “I’m engaged in treatment identification,” he said. “We only want to push forward medications with the most promise.”


Rush and his team are currently running four studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Rush’s work also depends on the research infrastructure at UK, particularly the in-patient research unit that is supported by UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science. In that unit, Rush and his team run the Laboratory of Human Behavioral Pharmacology to screen medications that can possibly block the effects of drugs so that people will become less dependent on them and/or stop using them altogether. Rush examines if some medications help drug abusers become abstinent, and if the same or different medications can help them remain abstinent.


“If we want to think about addiction as a disease, we need to bring the disease research mentality to our work.” He said. “If it’s a medical condition, let’s think about medically.”


Just like researchers must study cancer medications in patients with cancer, the medical approach necessitates that Rush and his team study addiction medications in persons who are addicted to drugs. That’s right: study participants must be currently addicted to drugs, specifically stimulants. Potential participants are thoroughly screened for a huge number of criteria, including active addiction, and undergo a battery of psychological testing, a full physical exam, lab work, and an ECG before they are cleared to participate. “We are conservative about inclusion. We’re really careful on the front end in order to avoid problems on the back end,” Rush said.


In the course of the studies, participants spend two to four weeks in the in-patient research unit. During that time, they are alternated on and off the medication being studied, or given a placebo, to gauge the effectiveness of the medication in reducing their desire for and willingness to work for the drug. A physician sees the participants every day in the in-patient research unit. At the end of their participation, they are offered a referral for drug abuse treatment.


“What we are finding is that there are some medications that work,” said Rush. “They’re not as effective as we’d like them to be, but they give clinicians something to use while we look for other drugs that are better.”


Rush knows that one therapy that appears to be the most effective is also the most controversial: substitution therapy for harm reduction. This involves substituting the drug to which a person is addicted with a less harmful alternative, under the safe and monitored clinical supervision of doctors. For example, this is the approach by which clinically supervised methadone maintenance is used to as an anti-addictive maintenance medication for people addicted to opioids.


“Substitution therapy is better because it’s under the control of a healthcare provider – it’s safer for the patient, reduces chances of overdose or contracting a disease, and is ultimately better for the healthcare system,” said Rush.


He also wants to see more creative, medical approaches and mentalities in treating drug abuse. “I think we need to start thinking outside the box about how to treat drug abuse and what our goal is. Is it abstinence? Is it decreased drug use for a healthier life?” he said.


He uses an analogy about obesity to demonstrate that, as in other medical conditions, any improvement with drug addiction is worthwhile. “If someone is morbidly obese and weighs 300 pounds, and you can get them to lose 25 pounds, they’re still obese but it’s better than where they started at 300. Maybe their blood pressure is a little lower, maybe their knees hurt a little less,” he said. He sees a parallel with drug abuse. “Abstinence might be an unrealistic goal for some people. So even reductions in use are good. If we can reduce drug use, and by association, the health consequences and the harm that people are causing themselves, that’s good. That’s good for the person and it’s going to translate into significant savings in the health care system.”


Rush acknowledges that the best treatment for drug abuse is a combination of medication and behavioral interventions. “There’s not a magic bullet that’s going to fix an addiction,” he said. “There’s a lot of behavior that needs to change.” He is currently writing a grant to study if cognitive retraining, which has been shown to have some effect in treating alcohol abuse, can reduce cocaine use.


He also understands the broader social factors that are inextricably related to drug abuse. Just as education and socioeconomic status are predictors of many health problems like smoking and obesity, they are often a predictor of drug abuse. “And we aren’t going to be able to fix someone’s socioeconomic status with a drug,” he said. “It would be nice if we could, but we can’t.”


Rush sees a long road ahead in working toward better approaches and treatments for drug abuse. That’s part of why he is so committed to training and mentoring the next generation of researchers.


“My favorite part of my job is training graduate students,” he said. “It’s what I’m most proud of. They’re young and excited about their research, which makes me excited.”


Similarly, his role as associate vice president of research stems from his desire to impact the broader UK research community at a higher level than just his own work. “I could just sit here and do my research,” he said. “But I also want to help move the university forward in this way.”


He particularly enjoys conducting grant writing workshops for researchers. “The grant funding situation is so difficult right now. Senior folks like me need to take some time to help the young folks learn to write grants.”


When asked about the future of his work, Rush is clear that he has no intentions of leaving UK or his field. He remembers that during his first visit to UK, he went to a restaurant with his wife. She pointed out that most people in the restaurant were wearing something with UK or Kentucky on it. “The community and statewide support of this institution is wonderful,” he said. “The integrated medical and academic parts of campus create a great collaborative environment. There is so much support for our research here.”


And he knows that his work can be of great benefit in Kentucky, which, according to the 2007 – 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, is one of the top 10 states for rates in several drug-use categories among persons age 12 and older: past-year non-medical use of pain relievers; past-month use of illicit drugs other than marijuana; and illicit drug dependence. Drug induced deaths in Kentucky exceed the national average, according to the same survey.


“It’s hard to watch the news without hearing about a meth bust somewhere in the state. There’s a high incidence of drug abuse in Kentucky, and we’d like to impact health here at home, in our state,” he said. “And we know that medication development for drug abuse has to get creative.”



MEDIA CONTACT: Mallory Powell,





Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
College of Pharmacy Open House
Iron Pour
UK Women's Choir 20th Anniversary Concert
Adventure Hiking & Rappelling @ Red River Gorge
Pickin' Time Mountain Music and Harvest Day
Purposeful Retirement: Planning Your Next Stage of Life
Diwali Dhoom 2014
UK Percussion Ensemble
Day Hike
Curator Tour: Take My Word For It
Industry Career Week: Resumes and Cover Letters
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Morehead State
Industry Career Week: How to Impress Your Boss in 90 Days
Rock Star Professionalism Series
UK Lab Band
Industry Career Week: Networking and Job Search
Social Enterprise and Innovation / Certified Nonprofit Professional Program Informational Meeting
Circle of Love Name Distribution
Appalachian Forum with Dr. Fran Ansley
Dana Harper Gallery Reception
Career Assessment Workshop
LNFS Presents: Zona Sur
LNFS Presents: The Grand Budapest Hotel
UK Jazz Ensemble
Circle of Love Name Distribution
Abstract Workshop
Lauren Potter
LNFS Presents: V for Vendetta
Last Day to Withdraw or Reduce Course Load
Circle of Love Name Distribution
R.C. May Photography Lecture Series: Marvin Heiferman
Men's Soccer vs. Charlotte
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Georgia
Free Friday Evening Swing Dance
Kentucky Football vs. Georgia
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
The Power of Poetry
The Lexington Lowdown and Free Lindy Hop Workshop
Swing Dance Featuring Live music by"The Metrognomes Orchestra"
UK Combos Concert
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Missouri
Circle of Love Name Distribution
UK Sax Ensembles
Job Club - Interviewing Strategies
Undergraduate Research Information Session
Jose Abisambra Presentation on Current Alzheimer's Research
Women of the World: Judy Smith
Internship Info Session
LNFS Presents: Reservoir Dogs
Refugee Life in America
#UKEDTALKS: International Opportunities for Education Majors
Leadership Assessment
Career Assessment Workshop
LNFS Presents: Iron Man 3
Chili and Pie Cook-Off Supper
#TrendingTopics: Vegetarians vs. Meat-Eaters
Campus Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics KY
LNFS Presents: La Demora
LNFS Presents: Pretty in Pink
LNFS Presents: Mean Girls
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Florida
Greek Cinematography: Critical Approach and Discussion
"Storied Streets" Documentary Showing about Experiences of Homelessness
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
UK Rep Bands Concert
College of Agriculture, Food & Environment 2014 Celebration of Land-Grant Research
Amanda Rogers, "Black Flags, ISIS 'Swag' & Jihadi Rap: Marketing Militancy after the Arab Spring"
Stories of Homelessness: Panel Discussion
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
A Positive Approach to Caregiving Conference
Education Abroad Open House
CatWatch Party
Appalachian Forum and Film Screening of "Up the Ridge"
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
LNFS Presents: The Princess and the Frog
Pinterest Party
International Games Day
Global Design with Phil Duncan
Caregiver Support Group
OXFAM Social Issues Banquet
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
Much Ado About Nothing
LNFS Presents: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You
LNFS Presents: The Big Lebowski
International Education Week Keynote Speaker: Christie Vilsack, Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID
Tobacco-free Tailgate 5 Year Anniversary
Bollywood Night
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
Much Ado About Nothing
LNFS Presents: Water For Elephants
4th Annual Markesbery Symposium on Aging & Dementia
Freedom from Fear: On Black Childhood and Other Dangers
Bouldering @ Stone Fort
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
Much Ado About Nothing
Bouldering @ Stone Fort
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
Much Ado About Nothing
Bouldering @ Stone Fort
UK Symphony Band and UK Concert Band
The Vexillology (the study of maps) Contest
Free Thanksgiving Shuttle to Blue Grass Airport
Free Thanksgiving Shuttle to Blue Grass Airport
Job Club - What is your money habitude?
Multicultural Student Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving - Academic Holidays
Free Thanksgiving Shuttle to Blue Grass Airport
Thanksgiving - Academic Holidays
Thanksgiving - Academic Holidays
Thanksgiving - Academic Holidays
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Arkansas

Sat, 11/29/2014

Mon, 12/01/2014

Tue, 12/02/2014

Reset Page