Kicking alcohol or drug addiction is extremely challenging, both physically and environmentally. Over time, the brain’s communication network adapts to the substance’s effects, making withdrawal difficult when someone tries to quit. Environmental cues also trigger cravings and relapse into substance use.
To better understand these challenges, Daniel Christian, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology at Des Moines University, recently received a two-year $152,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.
“With substance abuse, the person gets to the point where it becomes a new way to feel normal. They drink or take a drug not to feel good, but to not feel bad,” Christian says. “Given all the receptors and transmitters in the brain, a big network of systems undergoes a cascade of changes, making maintaining abstinence during withdrawal very difficult.”
The grant will fund research investigating how the brain’s communication network is altered during alcohol withdrawal. Specifically, Christian will study changes in dendritic spines, part of the brain’s communication system, during chronic alcohol withdrawal.
“By understanding how the brain’s communication network is altered during withdrawal, we hope to assist individuals with maintaining abstinence,” Christian says.
He will investigate the role of delta type glutamate receptors and their regulation of dendritic spines during prolonged alcohol withdrawal. Previous research shows alterations in these receptors and neuron structure are implicated in substance use disorders.
Christian’s work will be among the first to explore the contribution of GluD1 receptors on disrupted synaptic communication during alcohol withdrawal. It builds on his past substance abuse research on cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol.
“If we find ways to treat one substance abuse disorder, we may be able to apply that knowledge to other disorders,” says Christian, who plans to involve DMU students as fellow researchers on the project.