Addictions; Behavioral pharmacology; Drug abuse; Gene Expression; Gene Therapy; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Neurobiology; Neuropharmacology
My laboratory seeks to understand the neurobiology of motivation and how these systems can be "highjacked" by abused substances. Substance abuse and addiction are wide-spread problems that have an enormous economic and emotional toll. Reports indicate that it costs the US upwards to $600 billion a year to deal with the health and criminal consequences and loss of productivity from substance abuse. Despite this, there are few effective treatments to combat this illness.
The brain has natural systems responsible for motivating an organism to participate in behaviors that are necessary for survival, such as eating, exercise and reproduction. These same brain regions are highly sensitive to drugs of abuse, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana. My laboratory seeks to understand how these brain regions are affected by exposure to abused drugs, and in particular how the motivation to take drugs is altered by various molecular mediators in the neurons on these regions. The two basic questions we are interested in are 1) how projections from the cortex to the striatum influence drug seeking behaviors, and 2) how neurotransmitter receptors, particularly dopamine and cannbinoid receptors in these regions influence drug seeking.
Our technical approaches include a number of basic behavioral models including measurements of locomotor activity, catalepsy, conditioned place preference and drug self-administration. In order to probe the circuitry of these brain regions, we use a number of advanced molecular techniques to activate and inactivate neuronal populations including optogenetics and artificial receptors. We probe the molecular pathways within the neurons by over expressing genes or knocking down expression using RNA interference. Gene delivery is accomplished using recombinant adeno-associated virus (rAAV) and several projects in the laboratory focus on improving this approach and exploring potential gene therapy applications for these vectors. The ultimate goal is to understand the basic neurobiology and molecular biology of addiction in order to develop more effective treatments for addiction.