Wake Forest University Wins $7M Grant To Study The Causes Of Alcohol Addiction

January 04, 1999

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse of the National Institutes of Health has awarded a $7 million grant to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center to study alcohol addiction. The studies will provide insights into brain processes that lead to alcoholism.

The five-year grant will fund four major projects and several pilot projects at the Medical Center's newly established Center for Neurobehavioral Study of Alcohol. The center is one of four in the nation to coordinate a faculty of researchers to perform basic research examining the entire spectrum of alcohol addiction including genetics, behavior and cell function.

"Our studies will examine the most fundamental actions of alcohol on the brain that result in alcohol addiction," said Herman H. Samson III, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology and director of the alcohol center. "We believe our comprehensive approach to studying alcohol addiction attracted the National Institute to our facility and helped us obtain this grant."

Carol C. Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, is co-director of the alcohol center and Kathleen A. Grant, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology is scientific director.

The grant will fund the following projects: Brain Cells and Alcohol -- Under the direction of lead investigators S. John Mihic, Ph.D., assistant professor, physiology and pharmacology, and Kent E. Vrana, Ph.D., associate professor, physiology and pharmacology, a team of scientists will examine fundamental questions about how brain cells react to alcohol. They will attempt to locate the point of alcohol's actions in the brain by studying the chemistry within the synapse (the point of contact between nerve cells). Once discovered, scientists hope to find a way to block alcohol's actions and thus reduce the potential for addiction. This project will draw upon the resources of the molecular biology core in the department of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Brain Circuitry -- Scientists under the direction of lead investigator Linda J. Porrino, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology, will study how alcohol affects communication within the brain. Utilizing techniques to examine brain activity, Porrino will study the brain pathways alcohol uses to produce intoxication.

Animal Models and Behavior -- Lead investigator Samson and a team of scientists will examine behavior related to consuming large quantities of alcohol. Utilizing prior work on the reward pathways in brains of animals, the project will examine how alcohol involves these pathways.

Risk Factors -- Lead investigators Grant and Robert H. Mach, Ph.D., associate professor, radiology and associate professor, physiology and pharmacology will search for risk factors which may reveal susceptibility to alcohol addiction. Through the use of imaging at the Positron Emission Tomography Center at N.C. Baptist Hospital, they will search for ways to detect neurological damage due to alcohol abuse associated with these risk factors.

The grant will also fund several pilot projects over the five-year period including: Human performance after alcohol consumption. Lead researcher Anthony Liguori, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, will examine how well drinkers can detect their level of intoxication. Using specific feedback cues, Liguori and his team will determine the degree to which drinkers understand their level of impairment before attempting to drive. Tests will be conducted at the Human Performance Laboratory at the Piedmont Triad Community Research Center.

How the brain changes after heavy, prolonged drinking. David H. Lyons, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, will lead a team using biochemical procedures to assess which areas of the brain are most vulnerable to the long-term effects of drinking.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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