Dr Kelly Clemens is a UNSW Scientia Fellow in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Science, UNSW.
I am interested in why it is so hard to stop taking addictive drugs. Despite knowing that drugs are bad, many people continue their use - they find it extremely difficult to cut down or stop, despite significant health or social consequences.
So what is it about drugs that makes quitting so hard? My research focuses on the changes that occur in the brain following drug use and what the implications are for quitting. We find that what is learned under the influence of drugs of addiction is different. That is, people, places and paraphernalia present when drugs are ingested, take on an exaggerated meaning to the drug user. These cues can maintain drug seeking in the absence of the drug itself, or lead to strong cravings and ultimately relapse.
My research has shown that not only are drugs present at the same time as these cues, but that many drugs of abuse are actually changing the way the brain learns about these cues. Through interacting with DNA itself, many drugs 'switch on' genes that are important for learning. When the user is learning about what predicts or accompanies drug use, this information is stored so much more robustly than normal. Unraveling the epigenetic nature of the interactions between our genes and how they react to drugs of abuse is the current focus of research in my laboratory.
Affiliations and Membership
NHMRC Ideas Grant (2020-2022) Clemens K, Waters P
ARC Discovery Project (2020-2022) Clemens K