My research program focuses on the behavioral neurobiology of alcohol and cannabinoids. Through this research, I have established myself as a leading preclinical investigator of behavioral mechanisms involved in successful alcoholism recovery, as well as a leading expert on synthetic cannabinoids (a troubling new class of abused substances). My research program has been supported by extramural funding from several agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and private donors. Below, I describe my research program in greater detail.
My research on alcohol (supported by an R01, R03, and R21 from the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism and an endowment by a private donor) has established among the very first animal models of recovery. My results indicate that recovery, modeled by reinforcing alternative behavior, results in reduced attention to alcohol-related cues in the environment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of relapse. This is consistent with human research on attentional bias showing that the risk of relapse is directly related to the amount of attention an individual pays to alcohol-related cues, and attention to alcohol-related cues declines with longer periods of successful recovery. This contrasts with observations after restricted access (analogous to in-patient rehabilitation in a clinic) where attention to alcohol-related cues remains undiminished and relapse is relatively more likely. I plan to explore the extent to which attentional bias predicts or modifies alcohol use and relapse by establishing a novel and innovative model of attentional bias, with support from a recently funded (R21) project. This model contains many of the same aspects as the human attentional bias assay, providing a unique level of translational research. Further, once established, the model will allow experiments to examine the interaction between behavioral and pharmacological therapies. Medications that produce more rapid declines in attentional bias than behavioral therapy alone would be considered as promising adjuncts to behavioral therapy for treating alcoholism.
I have also published several well-cited studies on the ability of the anti-smoking medication varenicline and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluvoxamine to reduce alcohol use, particularly in the context of ongoing alternative behavior. I reported that the ability of these (and other) medications to reduce drinking while sparing the alternative behavior depends on the baseline pattern of these behaviors. The implication of this finding is that these medications might be more effective in people with high levels of drinking relative to other activities (the most severely afflicted), but might increase drinking among more moderate drinkers who have greater balance with other daily activities. Indeed, several recently published clinical trials using SSRIs are consistent with this conclusion. Combining my expertise in preclinical evaluation of potential anti-alcoholism medications with preclinical models of recovery provides a unique way to improve our understanding of and treatment strategies for alcoholism. Recently, with support from a Department of Defense award, I have begun to expand these studies to examine non-medical opioid use using parallel methods.
My research on cannabinoids has been supported by an R03 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and by an award from the Department of Defense. This research is focused on the rising problem of synthetic cannabinoids, which are legally available and have led to a troubling number of emergency room admissions. My research has demonstrated that synthetic cannabinoids exert similar behavioral effects to the primary psychoactive constituent in cannabis, but because they are pharmacologically more powerful, they may produce more frequent adverse effects than cannabis. Presently, I am exploring whether several clinically available medications can reverse acute intoxication by these substances. These studies will also facil