U-M experts receive grant to study genetics of drug abuse in rats

October 13, 2014
Contact: Jared Wadley jwadley@umich.edu

Gene therapy. (stock image)ANN ARBOR—Two University of Michigan professors have received a $1.5 million, five-year grant to study addiction-related behaviors among rats—an effort that will further research on understanding substance abuse by people.

Terry Robinson, the Elliot S. Valenstein Distinguished University Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, and Shelly Flagel, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and at the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, are participating in a new national Center of Excellence at the University of Chicago, which is funded by a $12 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The U-M project, which is called the “Genetic Studies of Incentive Salience,” is one of four initial projects supported by the center.

Robinson and Flagel will conduct a series of studies to investigate the genetic basis for individual differences in reward-seeking behavior and other traits related to addiction.
The researchers have a rat model that allows them to study how reward-associated cues can lead to behaviors that contribute to substance abuse.

Previous work by this U-M duo has shown that rats differ in how they respond to stimuli in the environment associated with reward. Only some rats attribute importance to cues that predict the delivery of rewards, and for these rats such cues can lead to adverse consequences—similar to relapse in recovering drug abusers. The genetic causes for this predisposition will be studied by this new center.

“The biggest problem in the treatment of addiction is that most patients relapse,” Flagel said. “Often times, they relapse because they come into contact with people, places or paraphernalia that have previously been associated with drug-taking behavior.”

The researchers will also look for a genetic explanation for why some animals are more drawn to novel or unfamiliar environments. The response to novelty is also strongly implicated in drug abuse related-behaviors in both animal and human studies.

In addition to the group from U-M, researchers from the University of Buffalo, University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Medical College of Wisconsin will perform experiments exploring other rat behaviors related to addiction, and send samples to the University of Chicago for genetic analysis. This allows the center to study the genetics of multiple aspects of drug abuse efficiently and at a much more rapid pace than previously possible.


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