Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

Center for Studies of Addiction

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Brain-Behavioral Vulnerabilities Laboratory

Research Areas

The Brain-Behavioral Vulnerabilities (BBV) Laboratory conducts research focused on identifying vulnerabilities to addictive behaviors and relapse. In the view of BBV investigators, vulnerability is tied to the function (and dysfunction) of two critical, interactive brain systems: 1) the "GO!" system, providing the powerful motivation for natural rewards, such as food and sex, and 2) the inhibitory or "STOP!" system, responsible for modulating the  "GO!" system.

With regard to the "GO!" vulnerabilities, the BBV has used functional imaging approaches (currently BOLD and perfusion fMRI) to show that conditioned drug cues (for cocaine, nicotine, heroin, alcohol, prescription opiates, and marijuana) can trigger limbic activation and drug desire ("craving"). This learned response to drug cues may lead to relapse and may also propel vulnerable individuals toward addiction. Thus, the BBV has initiated ongoing projects attempting to modulate the brain-behavioral response to drug cues with medications (GABAergics for cocaine,nicotine, and marijuana cues; varenicline for nicotine cues; and oral methadone or vivitrol for opiate cues) and/or behavioral strategies for inhibition of cue-triggered craving.

With regard to "STOP!" vulnerabilities, BBV investigators have identified frontal deficits (hypoactivity and hypodense gray matter) in cocaine patients and have linked these deficits to addiction-relevant behaviors (e.g., poor-decision making, increased risk-taking, poor inhibition, and poor affect regulation). Division researchers are currently characterizing structural (gray matter; white matter) and functional (perfusion) features in the "STOP!" circuitry of individuals diagnosed with substance use disorders, and will be using this information to help predict relapse and/or screen candidate medications targeting "STOP!" deficits.

The BBV will expand its studies of brain-behavioral vulnerability to adolescents-at-risk for addictive behaviors. This target group is critical for etiologic understanding, to determine which brain "differences" observed in individuals with substance use disorder may actually pre-date and pre-dispose drug use -- offering rational targets for prevention of these chronic and painful disorders.

 


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