Expert in the Mechanisms of Decision-making Joins the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction

Stephanie Groman, PhD, has joined the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience and the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction (MDTA), an interdisciplinary group that links basic research to new therapeutic approaches. 

Dr. Groman’s research is focused on understanding the biological and neurodevelopmental mechanisms of decision-making. Previously, much of her work focused on understanding how the neurobiology of decision-making was altered after drug use. Her work integrated multiple approaches to provide some of the first evidence that chronic exposure to methamphetamine resulted in the neural and behavioral alterations that had been observed in substance-dependent individuals. This foundational information allows researchers to identify biological targets that could be manipulated to treat addiction. 

Now, as part of the MDTA, her general focus is to hone in on why some individuals become addicted while others don’t. Many people take a drug during their life, but only a small subset of that population will actually become addicted. 

“Our guiding question right now is to understand, ‘why do those people become addicted?’ We hypothesize that this vulnerability may be linked to alterations in the brain circuitry that emerge during adolescence, a development period when the brain undergoes profound changes,” Dr. Groman said. “How the biological changes during adolescence impact brain functions in adulthood is not known, but we suspect that this relationship could be critically important for addiction.” 

Future studies will focus on this critical period of development as well as investigate how to improve or enhance these circuit formations in order to eventually prevent addiction. 

“You may be prone to addiction by mechanisms that make you susceptible, or, if you do take drugs, this drug use can erode the systems that allow you to make effective decisions. What we see in rats is that both processes are critically involved in addiction. The idea that addiction is a moral failing or that it’s a choice to continue using drugs, therefore, is inconsistent with the data that we’re seeing in animals, which demonstrates a clear link to biology,” Dr. Groman said. 

Addiction vulnerability is incredibly complex, requiring researchers to approach the problem from several perspectives at once. To understand the brain’s biological and neurodevelopmental mechanisms, Dr. Groman integrates computational approaches with neuroimaging, proteomics and drug self-administration in rodents to build a translational platform.

“We try to get as much valuable data as possible from each individual animal. My goal is to work through these multilevel analysis with behavior at the top, all the way down to genes at the bottom. You try to fill in each of these parts across multiple studies to bridge ideas and generate a multidimensional analysisin the animal that can be directly linked back to people,” Dr. Groman said. 

This information can inform future treatments, clinical tests and much more. The application of Dr. Groman’s work is addiction-heavy right now, but the findings can be used as a tool to better understand overall brain function. The work holds promise for other psychiatric conditions, including the underlying causes of schizophrenia and depression. For now, she’s hoping the work translates into tangible solutions for drug addiction.  

“We’re interested in finding something that allows us to measure or identify who is going to become addicted. The goal is to hopefully get down to the genetic level, so that you can assess addiction vulnerability in individuals with a blood sample,” Dr. Groman said.

The resources available at the U of M, including the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research and the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, will provide Dr. Groman with the tools she needs to continue advancing her work. Those valuable resources, in addition to the collaborative nature of everyone involved with the MDTA, solidified Dr. Groman’s decision to come to Minneapolis.

“When I was interviewing, one of the things that was really exciting about the U of M was the collaborative environment. It was obvious that everybody was working with everybody. To me, one of the most exciting parts of science is being able to work with people who know things that you don’t know. You can’t be an expert in everything, so being able to take your speciality and combine it with someone else’s specialty to make a story bigger or to understand something in even greater depth, that was one of the things I was really looking for in a faculty position. This idea of ‘team science’ is a foundation at the U of M and that’s really what kind of drew me here,” Dr. Groman said.

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