As the opioid epidemic continues to rise, Emilia Lefevre, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School, continues to dive deeper into studying opioid addiction by trying to understand how different patterns of opioid exposure can impact someone’s brain, behavior and vulnerability to addiction.

“The opioid epidemic is huge. I am very fascinated with how someone’s brain is rewired due to drug abuse,” Dr. Lefevre said. “I think it’s very important to study it to try to understand how this happens and how this leads to a vulnerability to addiction.”

Dr. Lefevre, originally from the “land down under” in Australia, received her doctorate at the Queensland Brain Institute while working in the area of schizophrenia. There, she began learning about research led by Patrick Rothwell, PhD, assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience and MnDRIVE Neuromodulation scholar, who had recently started his lab and wanted a postdoctoral researcher. In 2016, Dr. Lefevre left her home country for the U.S. and began her fellowship at the U. 

“I love it here. The winters were a learning curve, but I got there,” Dr. Lefevre said. “One of the biggest things in Australia is that there is a lack of access to all the new technology and techniques. Although, in America, it’s really cool because we have access to all the latest advancements in technology through the nationwide open collaborative environment.”

In Dr. Rothwell’s lab, Dr. Lefevre works with six other researchers to find a safe way that opioids can be prescribed, focusing on how opioid withdrawal can influence the vulnerability of addiction. As a MnDRIVE Neuromodulation postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Lefevre’s preclinical work uses cutting-edge technology to monitor and modulate patterns of neural activity during states of opioid withdrawal. In February, Dr. Lefevre’s research was published in “Neuropsychopharmacology.”

“When patients are prescribed opioids for the treatment of pain, they will often report going into brief periods of withdrawal between dosing, and they feel truly awful. Then, it’s just a cycle of wanting to compensate for this withdrawal,” Dr. Lefevre said. “I think if we could really minimize the amount of withdrawal people go through, we could reduce the negative impacts of withdrawal on the brain reward circuits and the subsequent increased vulnerability to addiction.” 

Beyond the lab, Dr. Lefevre works to promote more of a community for postdoctoral researchers at the Medical School. One of the highlights from this new community was the inaugural Medical School Postdoc Retreat held at Surly Brewing where they shared presentations in a data-blitz format and had the opportunity to meet colleagues from departments across the Medical School. 

“I am really passionate about having a strong community, and my goal is to help build it,” Dr. Lefevre said.