August 23, 2002

Meharry symposium examines chemistry of brain

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James Townsel, Ph.D.

Meharry symposium examines chemistry of brain

Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D.

Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D.

Better understanding of the chemistry of the brain could lead to ways to repair damage caused by drug abuse, said neuroscientists attending a symposium this month at Meharry Medical College.

“If you’re going to get them into treatment, get them to do well, to get a job, you’re going to have to do something about repairing their brain,” said Dr. Jean Lud Cadet, chief of the molecular neuropsychiatry section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the keynote speaker at the symposium.

Use of anti-oxidants like vitamin E, for example, potentially may reduce damage caused by free radicals, which are produced in the brain during methamphetamine abuse, Cadet said.

The symposium included poster presentations of research conducted by participants in the Summer Neuroscience Apprentice Program for Undergraduates (SNAP), part of a new neuroscience training grant to the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance. One of the alliance’s aims is to help develop and promote the scientific careers of underrepresented minorities.

During the program’s first 10-week session this summer, 10 minority undergraduates conducted research in laboratories at Meharry and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, attended faculty seminars and took mini-courses in the ethics of science and “survival” skills for aspiring scientists.

“It was a huge success,” said Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry and director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute. “At least three (participants) have indicated that they plan to apply to the Meharry/Vanderbilt neuroscience graduate program.”

Four pre-matriculation students who have been admitted to the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Meharry, and a fifth student who has been admitted to the Vanderbilt Graduate School also participated in the summer program and symposium, added James Townsel, Ph.D., associate vice president for sponsored research and director of the Minority Research Infrastructure Support Program at Meharry.

Townsel is principal investigator and Sanders-Bush is co-principal investigator of the neuroscience training grant, which is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The grant covers a $2,500 stipend for SNAP participants and a $3,128 stipend for pre-matriculation students, plus housing and transportation. For more information, visit the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance Web site, at

Speakers at the symposium included Sanders-Bush and Townsel, who also is professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Meharry. Ford Ebner, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and Cell & Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt, discussed his research on the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing rat brain.

Other local speakers were Randy Blakely, Ph.D., Allan D. Bass Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience at Vanderbilt; Sanika Chirwa, Ph.D., assistant professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Meharry; Dr. Robert L. Macdonald, professor and chair of Neurology, Pharmacology and Molecular Physiology & Biophysics at Vanderbilt; and Richard Nass, Ph.D., a post-doctoral research fellow in Pharmacology at Vanderbilt.

Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive stimulant that, if chronically abused, can lead to psychotic behavior and criminal activity. There is evidence in animal and human studies that long-term use of the drug can cause damage to nerve cells in the brain that release dopamine and serotonin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Much of the damage appears to be related to the production of highly reactive free radicals, molecules with an unpaired electron that can react with and disrupt genetic material. “If you could provide treatment with antioxidants like vitamin E and vitamin C …, you might be able to attenuate the cognitive manifestations of methamphetamine abuse,” Cadet said.

Another avenue is to develop drugs that help repair damaged DNA. “If you could repair somebody’s brain, they can have better cognition, remember what you told them, stay in treatment, and they will be a productive member of society,” he said. “This is very important. It affects everybody.”