Jocelyn Richard, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has received a five-year, $2.3 million grant from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), titled: "Glutamatergic basal forebrain neurons in aversion-resistant drinking.”

Throughout Dr. Richard’s career, she has been focused on researching signals generated in the brain – particularly, in how these signals are impacted by addiction and neuropsychiatric disease. Her lab’s central goal is to understand how external cues and internal states act together to modulate motivated behaviors. Over the course of the next five years, Dr. Richard will be researching “aversion resistant drinking,” which is a new direction for her.

“One thing many people in the alcohol addiction field are trying to do is to model compulsive use, which is an important aspect of addiction. It gets defined clinically as sort of continuing the use or seeking out the use of alcohol despite negative consequences,” said Dr. Richard, who is also a member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction. “The way we’re modeling it here is very simple in that we’re looking at what makes the animals continue to drink alcohol even if you make it really bitter.”

In Dr. Richard’s lab, she will be studying the behaviors of rats and their reactions and responses toward various exposures to alcohol. She started by conducting some preliminary studies to analyze if there was a change in the neuron response to bitter alcohol depending on the level of alcohol experience that the rats have.

“The basic hypothesis is that in animals with alcohol experience, there will be less glutamate released in response to bitter alcohol, and when we don’t have that glutamate, we hypothesize that’s what’s making them continue to drink the alcohol despite the fact that it’s bitter,” Dr. Richard said. 

Dr. Richard said that the degree to which a drug is socially acceptable isn’t related to the impacts it has on the brain, as alcohol has a wide variety of impacts on emotional and motivational processing. She said that although the implications of alcohol use are widely known, it is still a public health crisis. 

“In general, the evidence is clear that addiction is a biomedical problem, and treating it like a criminal justice problem is not a way to approach it,” she said. “Incarceration and stigmatization don’t help people who are suffering from addiction. Especially because a major symptom of addiction is continued use despite negative outcomes, so it’s sort of built into the definition of addiction that punishment isn’t helpful.”

The type of grant Dr. Richard received is known as an R01, which is the most mature of grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health. She says she was able to earn this grant, in part, because of mentorship from the Medical School’s P3 (Proposal Preparation Program) initiative.

“And, I learned from the mock study sessions held by the Department of Neuroscience,” she said. “The grant I got feedback on through that program hasn't been funded, but I did apply some of those lessons to this new grant. I would say to keep trying and don't get too attached to one specific proposal or set of ideas.”