In the latest podcast episode of It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science, featured guests Dr. Douglas Ziedonis and Katie Witkiewitz discuss What is a substance use disorder and what treatments are available? IPNRS breaks down substance use disorder from a clinical perspective as well as available treatment and strategies for treatment.  

Substance use disorders are complicated. This episode includes discussions on factors that contribute to substance use, research on treatments, how substance use impacts the brain, and how we can all help reduce the stigma around this topic by talking about it more openly.

The episode highlights how holistic substance use treatment has become in recent years and how many options there are as well as programs and methods that began at The University of New Mexico that have helped people recover around the world. IPNRS discusses ongoing research into substance use disorders, harm reduction and the stigma so closely related to this issue. Recovery encompasses so many different elements of a person. Understanding why people turn to these substances and intervening before that happens is a growing focus in medicine. 

Executive Vice President (EVP) for UNM Health Sciences and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the UNM Health System Dr. Douglas Ziedonis has been an addictions specialist for 40 years. His medical and public health background and accomplishments have targeted addressing health disparities – including issues such as homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. He says substance use can hijack the brain systems over time.

“Substance use disorder we know now affects the brain and that’s the basis of the problem,” said Ziedonis. “Each substance has a different short-term effect on the brain. There’s a reason people use it. There’s a particular effect or high some people might get that has a particular physiology in hitting neurotransmitters. Some people who use substances then it becomes a problem and there are many factors for why that can happen. Some of them are genetic, some of them are history of trauma and some of them are just environmental exposures.

“But with chronic substance use, you get more of an ongoing effect on the brain that actually changes the brain. The dopamine neurotransmitter system is impacted and there are particular areas of the brain that dopamine have its impact, but basically over time substance use hijacks the dopamine, brain system so that other normal rewards in life don’t seem as rewarding.”

On the treatment side, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Alcohol, Substance Use And Addictions (CASAA), focuses on mindfulness-based interventions for substance use disorders and harm reduction and diverse pathways to recovery from substance use disorder.

“Our investigators really focus on tackling the prevention and treatment of substance use and substance use disorders,” said Witkiewitz. “We cover the spectrum of different types of addicted behaviors as well as prevention of addicted behaviors. Our goal is to ameliorate suffering and to reduce the harms that can come from harmful substance use or risky substance use. We do that through both community programs and training. We do a lot of undergraduate and graduate and postdoctoral education and training. We also offer programs in the community, and we also do a lot of work through the National Institutes of Health.”

Witkiewitz says “substance use disorder is a medical diagnosis that’s a term to describe meeting criteria for problems related to substance. And actually, all of the substances have the same criteria. It’s interesting that whether you have issues alcohol, cocaine, heroin or nicotine, it’s the same criteria we use to evaluate the severity of that problem. There are 11 symptoms or criteria that if you meet at least two of them, then you would potentially be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.”

Check out It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science to hear this topic explored in greater detail both from the clinical and treatment areas. Subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or visit for show notes and resources.