Overall, the lab is interested in understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that contribute to the development of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. To study this, we use a range of techniques to examine cellular, molecular, and behavioral alterations in mice that have been genetically modified to impair brain serotonin synthesis and/or exposed to stress. Our hope is that this research will shed new light on the cellular and molecular basis of behavior and improve our ability to prevent or reverse the progression of addiction and psychiatric disorders.
One of the major focuses of the lab is to examine the effects of brain serotonin deficiency on behavior – both at baseline and in response to environmental and pharmacological manipulations. The brain serotonin system has long been hypothesized to contribute to mental illness, most notably depression, and research has suggested an important role for brain serotonin in the regulation of impulsivity, aggression, sexual behavior, anxiety, compulsivity, sleep and alcohol consumption, among other behaviors. We perform experiments to determine whether genetically induced reductions in brain serotonin influence susceptibility to stress-induced changes across a wide range of behaviors. In addition, we aim to identify pharmacologic (or other) interventions that can prevent or reverse the behavioral changes induced by stress in both wild-type and brain serotonin deficient animals.
In addition to studies of serotonin deficiency, we are also striving to understand the effects of early life stress on susceptibility to future stressors. For example, we want to find out when and how adverse early life experience promotes resilience to subsequent stressors vs. when and how early life stress exacerbates the effects of stress during adulthood. Our hope is that by elucidating the cellular and molecular alterations associated with resilience and vulnerability, we may be able to develop therapeutic and/or prophylactic interventions to promote resilience to the negative consequences of stress.