Researcher receives NIH award to explore effect of women's hormones on postpartum opioid relapse

When most people think of opioid addiction, they typically do not think of pregnant women. Unfortunately, however, the prevalence of opioid addiction during pregnancy has increased nearly 500% during the past 15 years.

In response, Alicia Allen, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor, UArizona Department of Family and Community Medicine, affiliated with the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, seeks to understand the relationship between postpartum hormones and opioid relapse to further support women in their recovery from opioid addiction.

Dr. Allen is a recent recipient of a prestigious five-year, $2.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award. The award will fund her study, "Hormonal Response to Infant Caregiving: A Novel Strategy to Break the Opioid Relapse Cycle during the Postpartum Period."

"My study will explore how women's hormones influence postpartum opioid relapse and whether these hormones could be used as a preventative-care strategy," Dr. Allen said. "While pregnancy presents a strong motivation for seeking and complying with treatment for addiction, the postpartum period is associated with a nearly 80% risk for relapse within six months of delivery."

Dr. Allen explained that relapse leads to a wide range of negative outcomes for the infant, mother and the entire family, such as physical, social and emotional consequences.

These include fatal and non-fatal overdose episodes, increased risk of substance-use disorders in children, foster-care placement, poor academic achievement, anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, little research is available on how to prevent opioid relapse in postpartum women.

Our goal is to identify which hormones may be protective against relapse to opioids during the postpartum period."

Alicia Allen, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Arizona

She and her team will be among the first to measure hormones such as progesterone and oxytocin during the first few months after childbirth in women with and without opioid addiction.

"We believe this will lead to a hormonally based intervention as an element of a comprehensive approach to prevent postpartum opioid relapse," Dr. Allen said. "I hope this research will expand to other substances of abuse--such as cannabis--and also may be applied to other postpartum health issues, such as depression and anxiety."

"Dr. Allen is an exceptionally talented and promising researcher," said Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, professor and chair, UArizona Department of Family and Community Medicine.

"Her novel research into the hormonal connections to opioid addiction and relapse in postpartum women is very timely and critically important to reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic on women, their families and the community."

"We are very lucky to have Dr. Allen, a talented and passionate researcher, as a member of our Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center," said Todd Vanderah, PhD, professor and head of the UArizona Department of Pharmacology and director of the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center (CPAC), at the UArizona Health Sciences.

Launched in the past year as part of the UArizona Health Sciences Strategic Plan, CPAC has raised more than $5 million in federal grants and continues to grow in areas of preclinical and clinical research, as well as community outreach, workforce development and education.

The New Innovator Award is part of the NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) Program that funds grants for highly innovative and unusually impactful biomedical or behavioral research proposed by extraordinarily creative scientists.

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