Data Stories | Addiction and the visual system

Data Stories | Addiction and the visual system

My interest in addiction began with a
job that I worked at after I graduated from Florida Atlantic University. Working at a substance abuse treatment facility was a very impactful and sobering experience. My name is Randy Ellis and I study substance abuse, behavioral neuroscience and computational biology. Substance abuse is a disease of brain plasticity. When someone consumes a drug the experience of consuming the drug
and the effects of the drug itself… change the brain and how its wired. So, learning how to reverse those changes is crucial to developing new treatments for substance abuse. And that’s where the Allen Brain Observatory dataset comes in — in such great effect. It gives a very in-depth and comprehensive
characterization of the visual system unlike anything that’s ever been seen before. So, what we did with the Brain Observatory data… is look at the responses in one area of the brain… to natural images and, from those responses,
decide what image caused those responses. Understanding the visual system is
important for understanding addiction… because vision is very important for the
process of addiction. When someone who’s trying to quit smoking sees
somebody smoking a cigarette that can be very triggering in terms of craving
and can lead to relapse. So, understanding how information is processed in the visual system is a really good starting point for understanding overall brain functioning… and develop novel treatments for substance abuse. The Allen Institute’s resources are
extremely valuable for multiple domains in science… because they attack several
issues at many different scales. All of which are relevant to the advancement of
biomedical research. We really have to cure substance abuse
because it’s a growing issue in society… and it’s killing more people every single day. Neuroscience is making advances on many different fronts… in terms of genetics in terms of brain imaging… that will allow us to understand what happens when someone becomes addicted to a drug of abuse… why some people are more prone to the process… and how we can best treat it. I really hope that we can cure this problem in the next 10 or 20 years.


  1. Being consumed with studying people researching people with addiction is figuratively an addiction unto itself. As though a linearity of conceptual notions of addiction being bent into a circle and the beginning and ending being obscured and blended away as to the causations. Nobody seems to want to be the space surrounding and the observer of the ring in favor of becoming the ring itself.

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