Speaking in 1982 about an alcohol abuse study that had just been expanded to examine thousands of patients in nine states, Nancy K. Mello discussed emerging research that was dispelling some long-held beliefs about those prone to alcoholism.
“There is no single personality type,” she told the Globe that December. “Virtually anyone can develop alcohol problems.”
With her husband, Dr. Jack H. Mendelson, she cofounded the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center at McLean Hospital in 1974, and they became leading researchers in the field of substance abuse.
“Their findings on loss of control and mood dysfunction as a result of drinking by alcoholics not only revolutionized scientific understanding of alcoholic drinking behavior, it also stimulated a new generation of behavioral and psychological researchers to apply experimental models to the study of alcoholism,” Dr. Roger Weiss, chief of McLean’s division of alcohol and drug abuse, said in a prepared statement.
Dr. Mello, who was director of McLean’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center and also taught at Harvard Medical School, died Monday, the hospital said. She was 78; other details, such as the cause of death, were not immediately available.
In 2004, the College on Problems of Drug Dependence presented Dr. Mello with its third annual Marian W. Fischman memorial lectureship award. Along with her husband, who died in 2007, Dr. Mello took an interdisciplinary approach to studying the behavioral, biological, and social dynamics of substance abuse and withdrawal.
“Dr. Mello was a pioneer in substance abuse research, and her accomplishments in advancing our knowledge of the biological and behavioral aspects of substance abuse were truly impressive by any standards,” Dr. Scott L. Rauch, McLean’s president and psychiatrist in chief, said in a statement. “She was passionately devoted to her work, and it will have a long-lasting impact on the field of substance abuse.”
The research by Dr. Mello and Dr. Mendelson extended beyond alcohol abuse. In 1980, they published groundbreaking findings in which they used the potent painkiller buprenorphine to treat heroin addicts. The couple’s study set the stage for further research establishing that buprenorphine blocks the pleasurable effects of heroin, and that it suppresses withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
“That landmark study, which was published in Science [magazine], paved the way eventually toward buprenorphine receiving FDA approval for treatment of opioid dependence,” Weiss said in an interview.
He called it “a major shift in the treatment of that disorder, a major advance,” because for the first time addicts “could be treated in mainstream office practices,” rather than stand-alone treatment programs such as methadone clinics. Offering patients that option “means that many people who might never have sought treatment are doing so now.”
At the same time that Dr. Mello and her husband were engaged in buprenorphine research, they were preparing their book “Alcohol Use and Abuse in America,” a sweeping overview of alcoholism that was published in 1985.
Writing about the attraction of alcohol in ancient days, they wrote that “the power of the gods to give joy and inflict pain seemed synonymous with the power of wine to create a cycle of ecstasy, sorrow and silent sleep.”
In the book, the couple traced the history of alcoholism in the United States from colonial times and examined the issue from a variety of angles, including Prohibition, the effect of alcohol on pregnancy and fetal development, and what happens when drinking is combined with drugs such as marijuana or hallucinogens. They also considered the mood of those who drink in a section called “The Illusion of Happiness.”
“As scientists, we welcome the opportunity to share with our readers information, ideas, and undoubtedly a few prejudices about alcohol use and abuse in contemporary America,” they wrote. “As writers about science, it has been a great joy to discover in history, art, and literature some facts and fancies that make science more comprehensible, and provide a new perspective on the problems and promises of humanity.”
Dr. Mello graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and received a doctorate in clinical psychology from Penn State four years later.
Postdoctoral studies in physiology followed at Harvard Medical School, and she also studied behaviorism with B.F. Skinner.
Moving to the Stanley Cobb Laboratories for Psychiatric Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Mello established a laboratory. She then switched to the National Institute of Mental Health’s National Center for Prevention and Control of Alcoholism, where she directed a research program, McLean said in the statement announcing her death. The hospital added that she also had served as a consultant to President Jimmy Carter’s biomedical research panel.
The work of Dr. Mello, an author of more than 400 articles, appeared in publications such as the American Journal of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, the Journal of the American Medical Association, NatureQ, and The New England Journal of Medicine.
McLean Hospital, in Belmont, recruited Dr. Mello and Dr. Mendelson in 1974 to lead an alcohol and drug abuse research program. The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center they cofounded now includes four laboratory divisions, McLean said.
In the December 1982 Globe interview about alcohol abuse, Dr. Mello talked about the difficulties researchers were then encountering as they tried to determine specific roots of alcoholism.
“Even among adoptees, it’s hard to disentangle nature from nurture,” Dr. Mello said. “Among offspring of alcoholics, some are and some are not. In the future, it will be more useful to study the direct effect of alcohol on behavior . . . how it makes people feel.”
Touching on the “illusion of happiness” topic she and her husband would explore in their book three years later, she added: “We all know that at a party, one or two cocktails make most people feel relaxed and comfortable. But if you talk to someone who drinks a quart a day, those pleasant feelings — conviviality, enhanced sense of self-worth — do not occur.”