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New center will examine addiction at molecular level, develop treatments

Aug. 17, 2016, 3:53 PM

Danny Winder, founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research. (Vanderbilt University)
Danny Winder, founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research. (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt University researchers from diverse scientific disciplines are joining forces to help crack the stubborn mysteries of addiction.

Through the new Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research (VCAR), their goal is to define the molecular events that drive addictive behavior and, ultimately, to develop new treatments that can help people sustain long-term recovery.

“Addiction is a brain disease, a chronic disease that needs to be managed as we would manage any other chronic disease,” said the center’s founding director, Danny Winder, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, Pharmacology and Psychiatry.

“It’s a disease that desperately needs better preclinical models and more information about molecules and neural circuits,” Winder said. “That’s one thing that excites me about VCAR—the opportunity to bring labs across campus together to target addiction.”

The center includes 36 faculty members from eight departments in the School of Medicine (Anesthesiology, Hearing & Speech Sciences, Medicine, Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, Pediatrics, Pharmacology, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Radiology & Radiological Sciences) and four departments in the College of Arts and Science (Biology, Economics, Psychology and Sociology).

VCAR is supported by the Office of the Dean of Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine and the departments of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, Pharmacology and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. It will move into space on the eighth floor of Light Hall in the summer of 2017.

Research areas include:

  • Fundamental neuroscience of brain circuits associated with addiction;
  • Preclinical (animal) models;
  • Human brain imaging – insights into addiction and mental health;
  • Pharmaceutical and other treatment strategies; and
  • Public policy and societal aspects of addiction and alcoholism.

Members of VCAR’s executive advisory board are Aurelio Galli, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics; Stephan Heckers, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; and Sachin Patel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry.

Galli studies signaling pathways in the brain that involve appetite and addictive behavior. Heckers, who holds the William P. and Henry B. Test Chair in Schizophrenia Research, has contributed to understanding the underlying mechanisms of psychiatric disorders.

Patel is a recent recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his research on the response of endocannabinoid signaling to stress. Endocannabinoids are natural molecules that activate the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, the same receptors turned on by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana.

Winder recently received a MERIT Award from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for his substantial contributions to understanding how alcohol affects brain function.

Among VCAR’s faculty members are David Sweatt, Ph.D., incoming chair of the Department of Pharmacology and an expert on epigenetics, how environment influences gene expression in learning and memory.

Another member, Mark Wallace, Ph.D., the Louise B. McGavock Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and dean of the Graduate School, is an expert on multisensory processing—how the brain combines information from the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

The breadth of the research that is being applied to addiction is made possible, in part, by recent technological innovations, including optogenetics, a “light-and-genetics” technique for studying isolated populations of neurons; and chemogenetics, the use of genetically engineered receptors to study cell signaling in the brain.

“Never in the history of neuroscience has there been a more rapid pace of advancement in the types of tools that we have at our disposal to ask questions about the brain,” Winder said. These technologies “allow us to control the activity of individual populations of neurons in different brain regions.”

The recent and alarming “epidemic” in the abuse of prescription painkillers (opioids) in the United States highlights the urgency of the research effort, Winder said. That’s on top of the societal problems caused by alcoholism and abuse of other drugs.

Winder studies the effect of chronic alcohol exposure and withdrawal on signaling pathways in the brain that regulate mood. Anxiety and mood disorders induced by withdrawal from alcohol can make it difficult for many alcoholics to remain sober.

Relapse can happen years after the alcoholic or addict has stopped drinking or taking drugs. One of VCAR’s goals, he said, is to understand the neural mechanisms that drive the craving for alcohol and drugs so that novel strategies can be developed to prevent relapse.

Through research, education and outreach, “VCAR seeks to have a positive impact on the disease of addiction, both locally and globally,” Winder said. “Ultimately, we’d like to find ways to prevent it.”

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