The ability to detect and respond effectively to salient and rewarding events is essential to well-being. When the neural mechanisms supporting these abilities fail to operate properly, reactions to natural rewards like food, sex, and social interaction can be compromised.
Our research explores the connections between neural activity, motivation, and social environment and how these relationships can be affected by substance abuse. Utilizing advanced imaging technologies including Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), our studies investigate how factors like personality, social environment, and genetics can impact neurobiological functioning and influence drug taking behaviors.
Current Projects: Oxytocin & fMRI
Our current work explores the influence of peptide dubbed 'the cuddle hormone', but otherwise known as oxytocin. Oxytocin is a tiny neuropeptide which can have a tremendous effect on a wide variety of social behaviors, from social bonding, to mating, to parenting. But, beyond its role as a social hormone, oxytocin can also affect a wide-variety of non-social behaviors as well - including drug-related behaviors.
Research has shown that when oxytocin is administered, animals tend to reduce their intake of drugs of abuse such as cocaine. How does oxytocin lower drug taking? One hypothesis is that oxytocin may impact neural functioning within circuits responsible for processing reward which might lead to changes in reward-driven behaviors like drug taking. In our laboratory, we are performing experiments designed to uncover how and under what circumstances oxytocin can shape activity within these brain reward circuits. We are utilizing a state of the art technique called pharmaco-fMRI, which allows us to study the functioning human brain during reward processing. The results of these studies will provide a better understanding of the role oxytocin plays in influencing networks involved in the processing of everyday rewards and in the pathophysiology of substance abuse disorders.