Todd E. Thiele, PhD, Director
 Behavioral and Integrative Neuroscience Program
Department of Psychology & Neuroscience
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Our Guiding Research Direction

While many will maintain controlled alcohol consumption throughout their lifetime, alcohol use disorders (AUDs) emerge in approximately 30% of individuals in the US population at some timepoint in their lives. AUDs stem from a history of repeated episodes of binge and heavy drinking, culminating in brain adaptations that result in alcohol dependence and uncontrolled alcohol drinking. To prevent and treat AUDs, it is necessary to understand the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that promote this disease. Our laboratory is interested in determining a) what changes occur in the brain over the course of repeated binge drinking episodes, b) if these changes, which may initially be transient, become rigid or long-last with greater alcohol exposure, and c) if these changes in brain neurocircuitry contribute to uncontrolled alcohol intake that is characteristically associated with alcohol dependence.

Our pre-clinical research focuses on the roles of candidate brain regions, and functional neurocircuitry between brain regions, in modulating binge alcohol consumption. Within these neurocircuits we study neurochemicals that have been shown to modulate the reinforcing and aversive properties of natural rewards (such as food and sex) and to play a role in regulating emotional responses. A growing body of literature suggests that alcohol usurps or “hijacks” the brain neurocircuitry that modulates emotions and responses to natural rewards, causing long-term changes that are associated with abnormal function. These changes trigger negative emotions and cause natural rewards to lose their reinforcing value, both outcomes which are thought to motivate high levels of alcohol drinking that individuals cannot voluntarily control.

We hope that by identifying how the brain changes over the course of binge and heavy alcohol drinking we may identify pharmaceutical treatments that prevent individuals in the early stages of AUDs from progressing to more severe stages of this disease, and that my help reverse alcohol dependence in those that are more severely afflicted. Notably, some of our pre-clinical discoveries have helped generate translational research by serving as the foundation for a phase II clinical trial study that is currently evaluating the efficacy of the drug, bupropion, as a treatment of AUDs in humans. Our current funded projects will provide insight into additional medications for treating AUDs.