VCU student aims to study underlying genetic and neurobehavioral pathways to addiction

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Megan Cooke

By: Jessica G. Carey

Binge drinking is a growing problem in the United States, but are all problem drinkers the same? That is a question that Virginia Commonwealth University student Megan Cooke hopes to answer.

Cooke has been interested in alcohol dependence and alcohol use behavior after receiving a postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award to work at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). She quickly realized the importance of genetic influences in the development of addiction; “Ignoring [the genetics] would be ignoring a huge piece of the puzzle.” That’s when she set out to study the genetic and neurobehavioral influences on addiction by enrolling as a member of the first cohort of PhD students in the Psychiatric, Behavioral, and Statistical Genetics (PBSG) program at the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR).

In order to continue her work, Cooke was granted the prestigious National Research Service Award by the NIAAA. This $68,740 award over two years will help support her continued research hoping to differentiate the biological influences involved in the development of and progression to addiction.

Historically addiction studies consider substance abusers as a single group, but Cooke hypothesizes that there are actually different types with differing biological etiologies. “Megan’s project is important in that it addresses the heterogeneity that exists among drinkers,” says mentor and former director of the PBSG program, Danielle Dick, Ph.D. “People drink for very different reasons — some drink to cope, others drink because they are impulsive and sensation-seeking. But often these differences are ignored when people study factors that cause problem drinking. Megan’s project is exciting in that it brings together psychology, genetics, and brain imaging to understand what contributes to different pathways of risk for alcohol problems.”

As part of her project, Cooke will be utilizing the VCU Collaborative Advanced Research on Imaging (CARI) facility, a 6,000 square foot research space that houses a research dedicated 3T MRI scanner, where she will be using fMRI technology to examine potential differences in reward sensitivity, behavioral inhibition, and emotion reactivity of her subjects. F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., Director of the VCU CCTR and the VCU Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies (IDAS) states, “This is an excellent training project from an outstanding student that will advance the science of addictions.”

So what’s next for Megan? She plans to start participant recruitment for the neuroimaging portion this fall. She will be utilizing VCU’s Spit for Science sample, a longitudinal cohort study on the genetic and environmental influences on substance use and emotional health. And hopefully one day, her work will have an impact on an ever-growing epidemic. As Cooke states, “I believe that the more we understand about the subtle biological differences in how and who becomes addicted the better we will be at treating individuals. Hopefully, the findings of this project will contribute to that understanding.”