My research program focuses on the behavioral neurobiology of alcohol and cannabinoids. My program has been consistently supported by extramural funding from several agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and private donors. Below I describe these aspects of my research program in greater detail.
My research on alcohol has been supported by an R01 and an R03 from the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism, and by an endowed research fund. This research uses preclinical models of alcohol abuse to study how reducing attention to alcohol-related cues might prevent relapse. My research indicates that reinforcing alternative behavior reduces attention to alcohol and alcohol-related cues in the environment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of relapse. This is consistent with human research on attentional bias which shows that the risk of relapse is directly related to the amount of attention an individual pays to alcohol or alcohol-related cues. In the coming years, I expect to explore this notion by examining the extent to which attentional bias predicts or modifies alcohol use and relapse. A recently submitted, and well-scored R21 application will aid this endeavor by establishing a novel and innovative preclinical model of attentional bias. This model contains many of the same aspects as the human attentional bias assay, providing a unique level of translational research. Further, once established, this model will allow pharmacological and neurobiological investigations into the mechanisms involved in attention to drug or alcohol-related cues.
I have also published several studies on the ability of the anti-smoking medication varenicline (Chantix) to reduce alcohol use. My research indicates that the ability of varenicline to reduce drinking while sparing other behavior depends on the baseline pattern of use. The implication of this finding is that varenicline might be more effective in those with high levels of drinking relative to other activities (the most severely afflicted), but might increase drinking among those with more moderate levels of use and greater balance with other daily activities. This research bolsters the growing tendency to consider more personalized treatment strategies, based on the individuals characteristics.
My research on cannabinoids has been supported by an R03 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and more recently 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. This research has established me as a leading expert on the behavioral biology of synthetic cannabinoids, and has resulted in national press exposure for my expert opinion, as well as invitations to write book chapters, a review article and an expert commentary. A recently submitted R01 application is designed to integrate my two lines of research by examining how cannabis or tobacco might influence alcohol use.
Alcohol and cannabis remain two of the most widely used and thus most problematic, recreational drugs. My research program is focused on understanding the behavioral neurobiology of these drugs, in an effort to improve treatment for addiction and to improve safety for more moderate users. This program represents a transdisciplinary approach that incorporates sophisticated behavior and cutting-edge neuroscience.
In addition to these research and scholarly activities, I have provided service to the institution, the profession, and the community. I have served the institution by, among other things, directing the Addiction Seminar Series and serving as a voting member of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. I have served the profession by performing ad-hoc peer reviews, serving as a board member for the Texas Research Society on Alcoholism, mentoring undergraduate students, and sitting on two dissertation committees. More recently I joined the steering co