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RIA researcher receives $1.8 million grant to study prenatal alcohol exposure

December 16, 2010
by News release
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Buffalo, N.Y. — Roh-Yu Shen, senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA), has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to continue her study of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The award will support a five-year investigation of the effects of prenatal ethanol—or alcohol—exposure on later behaviors associated with an increased risk for addiction in animal models.

Findings from this research will be used to understand the risk factors of human addiction and, ultimately, the study will add to the body of knowledge about brain mechanisms that lead to increased risk of addiction following prenatal ethanol exposure.

The important implications for this research program span a number of areas, according to Shen, including a better understanding of the cellular/molecular mechanisms that mediate prenatal ethanol exposure effects on addiction risk.

"This will provide important insights into better therapeutic strategies for behavioral problems associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders," she said.

"We know that prenatal exposure to ethanol results in changes in the dopamine neurons of the brain critical to addiction," Shen explained. "In the new study, we will use a multi-disciplinary approach (cellular electrophysiology and behavioral) to investigate if prenatal ethanol exposure leads to a persistent increase on glutamate synaptic transmission in dopamine neurons located in the ventral tegmental area."

"This effect is thought to be a critical cellular mechanism of addiction," Shen continued. "Specifically, we expect to confirm whether prenatal ethanol exposure leads to an increased expression of GluR2-lacking AMPA receptors, as well as how prenatal exposure induces a blockade of endocannabinoid-dependent long-term depression."

The study also will help to clarify the complex changes in cellular mechanisms within brain dopamine systems thought to mediate addiction, and in addition to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may have broad impact on conditions such as prenatal exposure to toxins or drugs of abuse. Results from this investigation may provide insights into common brain mechanisms that mediate increased risk of addiction and lead to better prevention of addiction in general.

In addition to her RIA position, Shen is a research assistant professor in UB's Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences within the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and is a research associate professor in the UB Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The research team includes co-investigators Samir Haj-Dahmane, RIA senior research scientist, and Cynthia Dlugos, research assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Consulting on the study are Jerry Richards, RIA senior research scientist, and Paul Vezina of the University of Chicago.

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