After an overdose: Miami researchers study opioid overdose effects on the brain in ongoing drug crisis

By Shavon Anderson, university news and communications

More than 130 people per day die from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control. At the current rate, you’re at greater risk of dying from an opioid overdose than you are from dying in a car accident.

Even with the continued push to make naloxone, a medication used to combat an opioid overdose, more accessible nationwide, agencies still struggle to contain the scope of the drug epidemic.

A headshot of Matthew McMurray, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University.Matthew McMurray, Miami University assistant professor of psychology, understands the problem.

Matthew McMurray, Miami University assistant professor of psychology.

“The stats we know about naloxone use by regular people are from the CDC as well, and estimate that about 26,000 lives were saved by lay person administration from 1996 to 2014,” he said. Those numbers exclude trained medical personnel and law enforcement, and McMurray believes the figures are likely underestimated.

McMurray heads a lab at Miami which researches addiction by using animal models. Inside the lab, his team of undergraduate and graduate students create specific conditions to pinpoint leading addiction factors like family history or upbringing.

In response to the opioid crisis hitting southern Ohio, McMurray’s team decided to look at overdoses through a different lens. They found that most research focuses on prevention and how to keep people from becoming addicted in the first place. It ignores a key question: What happens after someone overdoses and gets revived?

“We just don’t know what an overdose is actually doing to you,” McMurray said.

The lab received grant funding from Miami’s College of Arts and Science to gather preliminary data on whether there are any long-term neurological effects.

To get more information on prevention and treatment, researchers need to understand how surviving an overdose changes the brain. The team’s research will reveal potential deficits in decision-making, memory or motor skills. McMurray points to possible cognitive changes that can cause depression, anxiety or other disorders.

Any findings could also shed light on reports of increased risk of relapse in survivors, which creates challenges for addiction treatment.

Right now, there’s no system to track survivor outcomes. Many overdoses happen in the home, and according to McMurray, witnesses fear the criminal punishment often connected to calling emergency services. The availability of naloxone over-the-counter in areas like Butler County offers a short-term fix.

“More people survive overdoses, which is wonderful. The goal is to reduce death,” McMurray said. “But because users aren’t being treated in a hospital-based setting, there’s no one to provide follow-up care.”

It’s still early in the research process, but the goal is to identify which issues, if any, do exist after an overdose. Once those issues become known, the research can be used to shape treatment.

“Like we can prevent death with naloxone, perhaps we can give another medication to prevent the brain damage that users experience,” he said.

McMurray acknowledges that the results won’t offer a definitive answer to the issue, but he sees the final report as an opportunity to shed light on what could be happening and provide information on next steps. The findings have value in determining how to mitigate long-term harm for overdose survivors as part of a broader, comprehensive plan.