Professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry
Director, UNC Center for Alcohol Studies
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
I am a neuropharmacologist. I study how repeated use of drugs alters the brain and how the brain changes at various stages of life from adolescence to senescence. I have always had an interest in mental disease and hope to discover ways to prevent or reverse brain diseases. As a biology major in college, I thought I wanted to be a physician. However, after working in a hospital I found that I did not like it as much as I thought. I spent a few years working in a pharmaceutical lab and found I loved doing experiments. Also I realized how drugs have an impact on personality and brain function. So, I decided to enter graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Pharmacology. For my thesis, I studied how antidepressants desensitize (reduce the response) of a certain kind of receptor that regulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. The release of these neurotransmitters is required for a therapeutic response to the antidepressant.
After obtaining my Ph.D., I got my first job doing research as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health, where I became interested in how receptors in the brain produced certain kinds of cellular “signals.” This led to a series of studies indicating that specific cellular signals in neurons regulate their sensitivity to insults.
Although I have worked on stroke, aging, and other neurodegenerative processes, in the past few years I have focused my studies on alcohol-induced brain damage. Studies in a rat model of binge drinking have led to a series of insights into how alcohol damages the brain and the nature of the behavioral consequences. Rats given alcohol for four days at a level that mimics binge drinking in humans had more trouble reversing a learned task. This difficulty in the rats paralleles the behavior of people with alcohol dependence, who persist in drinking despite experience with negative consequences. The regional pattern of brain damage in rats is analogous to that seen in studies of humans; the regions damaged involved function in memory formation and associative learning.
I have also performed research in rats that are bred to either prefer drinking alcohol or not prefer drinking alcohol. I have found that following binge-like exposure to alcohol, the alcohol-preferring rats had greater brain damage than their non-preferring friends, suggesting that genetics plays a role in vulnerability to alcohol abuse. Also, the alcohol-preferring rats are less sensitive to the sedating and intoxicating effects of alcohol, yet they sustain more damage after drinking, analogous to what is observed in humans. Similarly, adolescent rats, like their human counterparts, are less sensitive to the intoxicating effects of alcohol, but more sensitive to brain damage after binge-like alcohol exposure.
One of our most recent findings is that ethanol decreases brain stem cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the rat hippocampus, a part of the brain central to the formation of new memories. In rats, we found that neurogenesis can recover during abstinence, aiding the return of cognitive functions and possibly recovery from addiction.
These advances have helped clarify not only the complexities of how alcohol damages the brain, but how that damage itself contributes to addiction.
In my spare time, I like exercise, photography and gardening. Recently, I have had a lot of fun doing underwater photography while scuba diving. I have 2 dogs and like to cook as well, but not necessarily for the dogs.
I have a website that has a lot of information on what we are doing. Go to: http://www.med.unc.edu/alcohol/