Home » Meet the Scientists » Linda J. Porrino, Ph.D.

Linda J. Porrino, Ph.D.

porrinoProfessor of Physiology & Pharmacology
Wake Forest University School of Medicine

I am a neuroscientist. My goal is to understand how the brain changes as a result of the use of drugs. My group tries to look inside the brain to see how drugs like marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine change the way the brain works. But we are also interested in studying how drugs like Ritalin used to treat attention deficit disorder and L-DOPA used to treat Parkinson’s disease change the brain as well. Science was the furthest thing from my mind as a kid in school. I was always interested in English and cheerleading.

When I got to college, I took my first psychology course and I was hooked. Most of my courses had to do with abnormal behavior, but the part that always interested me the most was the parts about the brain. After college I worked in a hospital and spent much of my time working with schizophrenic and depressed patients. More and more I wanted to know how the drugs that they were taking helped them to recover from these diseases. After I got my PhD studying reward pathways in the brain and how they went awry in some diseases, I did postdoctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health studying ways to visualize brain function.

cocainebrainThe methods I learned there use very short-lived radioactive probes that are injected into the blood stream. The probes are taken up in target tissues such as the brain or heart or liver. After the brief uptake period we can visualize where and how much of the probe has been taken up with a scanner designed to measure the radioactive tags. Three-dimensional images can be reconstructed and we have a picture of the brain. We can measure where specific chemicals are in the brain or how much work the brain is doing. This has been the way I have studied the effects of drugs on the brain since. The picture on the left is from the brain of a cocaine user. The blue areas show the parts of the cortex where brain activity is reduced as result of drug use.

Of course, science is a very big part of my life. But it is not all that I do. One of my big passions is cooking and I have been working on a cookbook with my daughter. We have been cataloging some of our family recipes to share with everyone. My other passion is baseball. I love to go to games at parks all over the country. So far I have been to 17.