Addiction – to gambling, to alcohol, to food, to any compulsive human behavior without regard to consequences – ruins lives.

But how does addiction manifest in the brain? Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth led by Dr. Francesca Filbey are hoping to reveal the interactions between genetic and environmental factors that lead to addiction. Dr. Filbey and her team are studying the effects of addiction across the lifespan with the hope of discovering predictors for individuals that might be at risk.

The Filbey lab focuses on combining neuroimaging and genetic techniques to characterize neural mechanisms associated with reward system dysfunction (e.g., addictive disorders). Specifically, the researchers are interested in how environmental factors (e.g., adolescent onset of use, early life stress) mediate the neural mechanisms that are associated with changes in the reward system and how genetic risk moderates these effects. Ongoing projects involve the determination of these effects using neuroimaging tools (sMRI, DTI, fMRI during cue-exposure tasks, reward and punishment tasks, response inhibition tasks and stress tasks, resting state fMRI) and genetic studies in substance abusers, compulsive eaters and risk-taking individuals.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded Dr. Francesca Filbey more than $1.9 million to study how genetic and environmental factors predict or increase the chances of marijuana addiction.

“Despite the long history of cannabis use, which dates back to more than 2500 years, we still know very about its effects on the brain. It is the most widely used illegal substance in the United States, contributing to marijuana dependence being the most prevalent of all illicit drug dependencies,” Dr. Filbey said. “I wanted to study the reward system in the brain because understanding how that system operates and changes will have wide implications for a number of problems such as obesity, pain management, and drug addiction.”

As part of the study, more than 100 research participants will undergo brain imaging while being presented with marijuana cues, such as paraphernelia, to examine the neural mechanisms of craving. Participants will also be psychologically evaluated so as to identify environmental stressors that are risk factors for marijuana dependence. Understanding these risk factors and the genetic makeup of those addicted to marijuana could lead to better therapies to treat and prevent addiction. Through Dr. Filbey's team's research, the hope is to characterize predictors of drug dependence that could then facilitate timely and efficacious prevention and treatment."

This innovative research seeks to illuminate how early life experiences can interact with and change an individual’s genetic makeup to produce brain changes that lead to marijuana dependence.

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