Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology
Associate Director, Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
I am a scientist, a professor, and a mother. I study how alcohol works in the body and the brain to produce its effects and to change the body and brain after heavy use. My goal is to discover an effective treatment for alcoholism in my lifetime!
When I was in college, I loved my classes in psychobiology and neuroscience. I decided that I wanted to learn more about the brain so I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Neuroscience. For my thesis, I discovered that chronic exposure to psychoactive drugs can change the numbers of both cholinergic and adrenergic receptors in the brain of rats, contributing to tolerance and sensitization (these are observed in rats as well as humans).
After obtaining my Ph.D., I worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where I studied how benzodiazepines and barbiturates (sedating drugs), and alcohol cause tolerance and dependence. I found that chronic exposure to each of these drugs can alter the expression of messenger RNAs responsible for synthesizing proteins called GABA receptors, the targets where the drugs work. I concluded that these changes are responsible for dependence and withdrawal to the sedating drugs and to alcohol.
Although I liked working at NIMH, I missed working with students, so I got a job at UNC Chapel Hill as a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry, where I teach graduate and medical students. I decided to focus my research on alcohol dependence and I got “hooked” on the idea that heavy drinking leading to alcoholism may arise from low alcohol sensitivity due to both genetic and environmental factors. My research group has discovered that certain steroids called “neurosteroids” in the body and brain are increased by alcohol use and this protects most people from drinking excessively and developing dependence or alcoholism. A deficiency of neurosteroids increases the risk for alcoholism. Our work has lead to clinical trials that test the effectiveness of neurosteroids in treating alcoholism.
In addition to studying alcohol, I have lots of hobbies such as yoga, skiing, travel, and collecting Asian art. I love to spend time with my family and we all enjoy talking about science.
To learn more about my work on the molecular basis of alcohol sensitivity and dependence, please visit my web site: http://www.med.unc.edu/alcohol/faculty-research/lab-sites/preclinical-molecular-neuropharmacology-research-team.