Neurocience at USU Biology
Chronic pain is a huge problem that affects about one-third of the U.S. population. Despite many years of research for alternatives, opioids remain the most prescribed drugs to treat many types of pain, especially severe chronic pain, even though they possess many side effects including addiction.
One area of focus in the lab is to determine the signaling mechanisms involved in opioid-induced analgesia that are altered, which leads to the development of tolerance to these drugs. If we can determine what cellular changes cause tolerance, we can develop novel drugs that target these specific signaling pathways to better treat pain. Our previous studies revealed that commonly used opioids, such as morphine and fentanyl, produce analgesia using different signaling mechanisms, which leads to differences in the development of tolerance to these drugs. Ongoing studies in the lab investigate blocking different intracellular molecules during long-term opiod treatment.
In addition we are exploring the neuropeptide-receptor system (BigLEN-GPR171); we find that GPR171 is highly expressed in areas involved in both addiction and pain and is found in cells that co-express mu opioid receptors. Repeated opioid treatment increases GPR171 expression and signaling in various brain regions including the nucleus accumbens and amygdala. In addition, we see that blocking GPR171 function decreases morphine-induced reward, tolerance, and withdrawal. Future studies will determine which brain regions contribute to these behaviors.
Social interactions are critical to nearly every aspect of human health. Meaningful social relationships are protective against a variety of disease states, and they can buffer us against the stresses of everyday life. Loneliness, grief, and the loss of social connection increase the risk for mental and physical distress. Many of these same phenomena also occur in highly social animals, so studying the underlying biology of sociality in animals can yield tremendous insight into the biological forces driving human social behavior and cognition.
I am a behavioral neuroscientist, and my research program is deeply rooted in basic research in the comparative neuroanatomy and behavioral pharmacology of the social hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, as well as their cell-surface receptors. I study the brains, hormones, and behavior of monogamous species in order to understand the biological basis of selective social attachments. My research is both comparative and translational; the results inform our understanding of the shared and unique aspects of the neurobiology of sociality across species, and it also has translational implications for the neurobiological basis for human attachment relationships and can help inform hypotheses about the etiology of human psychiatric disorders.