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Addiction scholar honored with career achievement award

April 5, 2016

Warren Bickel

Warren Bickel stands near his desk.
Warren Bickel

The world’s oldest scientific organization studying addiction, the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, selected Warren Bickel as the 2016 recipient of the Nathan B. Eddy Award. The annual award is the college’s highest honor and acknowledges outstanding research efforts that advance the knowledge of drug dependence.

Bickel is a professor and the director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

“Out of the awards we offer, the Nathan B. Eddy Award, is the biggest and most prestigious,” said Mark A. Smith, chair of the awards committee for the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Davidson College in North Carolina. “This award is an acknowledgement of Dr. Bickel’s entire research career in the field, including the contributions he has made to substance abuse research.”

Bickel studies discounting of delayed rewards — why a person might decide a quick fix now is worth more than other long-term rewards, such as health— in an effort to understand how and why people decide to use drugs or alcohol or engage in other risky behaviors. His eventual hope is that his research will lead to new interventions to help people with addiction.

“Addiction is a chronic disease, but it’s currently treated as an acute problem. My research team and I are working to better understand addiction and, in turn, better inform the treatment of addiction,” Bickel said.

Early in his career, Bickel researched the utility of buprenorphine as a treatment of opioid dependence, leading to Food and Drug Administration approval of the medication.  He also participated in policy debate regarding methadone treatment in Vermont and became the inaugural director of the first methadone treatment program in the state.

Bickel introduced and developed the use of behavioral economics as an approach to the study of drug dependence. He established the conceptual approach known as the Competing Neurobehavioral Decision System. Scientist use the approach to examine how a person makes decisions based on the combined input of impulse and executive systems — and how an imbalance can lead to valuation of unhealthy habits, such as addiction.

As a result of that work, Bickel received a 10-year MERIT award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. To even qualify for a MERIT award, nominees must “have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity,” according to the National Institutes of Health website.

And Bickel is productive. In the past year alone, he’s published 24 scientific papers. That’s a small fraction of the work he’s accomplished, and the College on Problems of Drug Dependence is recognizing with the Eddy B. Nathan award.

“I’m deeply honored to be a recipient of this award,” Bickel said.  

Bickel will receive the award at the College’s annual meeting in June in Palm Springs, California.

“Dr. Bickel is an internationally recognized leader in addiction science — it is an honor for him to receive this award and for the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute to have Dr. Bickel and his program here in Roanoke,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “However, I am not surprised by this recognition as Dr. Bickel’s work continues to dramatically change our understanding of addiction and ways to treat it.”

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