$1.25 MIllion NIH Grant to Aid UH Research on Impact of Heroin Use

Funds Support Innovative Virtual Reality Drug Abuse Research, Mentor Programs

The University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work is the recipient of a 5-year, $1.25 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the long-term use and health consequences of heroin use. Additionally, the grant provides resources to create the infrastructure that will support future research endeavors. 

Heroin use has increased steadily since 2007 according to NIDA, as users shift from prescription pain medication abuse to the cheaper and more available opioid.

A primary project at the GCSW will focus on extinguishing heroin cravings in injecting and non-injecting users. Researchers will follow male and female Mexican-American users from young adulthood to older adult. They’ll also have at their disposal an innovative tool for their investigations—virtual reality.

“My aspiration to expand addictions research on campus to a Tier One level will be realized under this grant,” said Patrick Bordnick, professor and principal investigator. “The virtual reality-based heroin craving project represents a culmination of 10 years of work. The virtual environments we have created provide exposure to the real world in the clinical setting allowing researchers to study drug-use behaviors on another level.” 

Bordnick, the college’s associate dean for research, also directs the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab, as well as the Child and Family Center for Innovative Research. 

Another important aspect of the grant is a program to promote, support and develop underrepresented drug-abuse researchers, creating new leaders and research expertise. The UH Drug Abuse Research Development Program will mentor new drug abuse researchers, while collecting additional data and creating innovating approaches to treating and preventing the triggers and health consequences of heroin use. 

“This grant provides the infrastructure to support faculty and students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in drug abuse research, with the goal of developing independent, funded investigators,” said Luis Torres, associate professor and project director.

Torres researches heroin use and related health consequences in Mexican-Americans.  Part of the grant will fund HIV/AIDS testing on campus and in the community in partnership with area nonprofit organizations. 

“It is imperative that we provide prevention services, including testing, education and referrals for treatment if needed,” he added. “Offering these services as part of a standard of care in drug abuse treatment will lead to decreases in the spread of STDs, including HIV, in this high-risk group.”

Other projects the grant will fund:

  • Studies on impact of drug abuse on diet, nutrition and obesity of users
  • Studies on the impact of proximity on drug use and use of treatment facilities
  • Projects to support undergraduate and graduate projects