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LINCOLN, Neb. | The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has received a nearly $12 million federal grant to research challenges connected with rural drug abuse in the Midwest.

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund a research initiative called the Rural Drug Addiction Center. Researchers plan to study 600 rural drug users in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, tracking how social networks, behavioral factors and economic conditions play into rural drug addiction.

The volunteers who agree to participate will be given cellphone software that tracks users and tailors survey questions based on their location and replies. Participants will be identified by a code number, not by their names. They'll be paid small stipends around $30 for interviews and $10 for referring other drug users.

Kirk Dombrowski, the program's leader, said current drug addiction treatment focuses on brain chemistry, but understanding social patterns of abuse can lead to new treatments.

The effort comes as Nebraska grapples with a drastic jump in its drug overdose rate in recent years. The state's overdose death rate grew from 2.3 per 100,000 people in 1999, to 8.1 per 100,000 in 2017, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

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The issue is complicated by a trend among the state's drug users who are often addicted to a combination of substances. It's an understudied phenomenon that's been seen in other Midwestern states.

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Early theories explaining the trend suggested that drug users in rural areas took advantage of any drugs they could find because of limited supply and availability, said Dombrowski. But research later showed that access to drugs was nearly the same across urban and rural environments.

It has led researchers to look into sociological concepts around new users taking on the habits of those established in a community, he said.

"These days, with so many people dying, the question of 'why' becomes much more prominent," Dombrowski said.

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