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Kathleen Grant, Ph.D

Kathleen Grant, Ph.D. is a senior scientist, and chief of the neuroscience division at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), as well as a professor in the department of behavioral neurosciences at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
Dr. Grant recently won the RSA Begleiter Excellence in Research Award at the Research Society on Alcoholism’s annual meeting in June 2013 in Orlando, Florida.

Writer Sherry Wasilow interviewed Dr. Grant from her office at OHSU.

SW: How did you begin your work in the field of alcohol studies?

KG: I have had a fairly straightforward path. As a science major in college, I was interested in a wide range of sciences, but biochemistry, organic chemistry, and biopsychology were my favorite subjects. I volunteered at the only biopsychology lab on campus and got my introduction into animal models of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

For graduate studies, I chose to get a degree in physiological psychology, which at the time was a precursor of today’s behavioral neuroscience. I subsequently received a postdoctoral award from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to study monkey models of addiction in the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. Here I was given the opportunity to learn about integrating human and non-human primate studies on the etiology of drug addiction.

After my postdoctoral training, I join the NIAAA intramural laboratories at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and became versed in the cellular pharmacology of alcohol tolerance and dependence. This is when I began collaborating with electrophysiologists to link how alcohol alters brain synaptic communication with alcohol’s ability to capture and control behavior among individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUDs).

From the NIH, I joined the faculty in the department of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine where I again had the opportunity to study monkey models of drug self-administration, and expand these studies to in vivo imaging. With the help of great colleagues, we built a large monkey program in behavioral pharmacology. Looking to go back to the west coast, I accepted my current position at OHSU and ONPRC where there are large, multidisciplinary and translational efforts in understanding alcohol addiction.

SW: How would you describe your current research focus?

KG: I use two main approaches to understand how alcohol addiction manifests in individuals. These approaches, drug discrimination and self-administration, provide complimentary information to better understand the risk for and consequences of heavy drinking.

With the drug discrimination procedure, we can characterize how alcohol interacts with drug receptors in the brain to control behavior. Since alcohol is a simple organic compound that can reach every cell in the body, untangling its effects throughout the brain is a challenge. Drug discrimination allows us to understand the mechanisms of how alcohol is perceived by the individual, essentially breaking down the component parts of alcohol’s simultaneous activity at multiple receptors while observing behavioral action. This has led to discoveries that some neurotransmitter systems, for example the gamma-aminobutryic acid receptor system, most likely underlie the low dose, rising phase of alcohol’s actions like feeling energetic, while other neurotransmitter systems, such as the glutamatergic system, may underlie higher dose effects like memory loss.

The self-administration procedure is a direct model of alcohol drinking, allowing us to understand factors that contribute to individual differences in the propensity to drink to the point of alcohol dependence. In this procedure, we allow each monkey to choose its own pattern of alcohol consumption, or water and food. Patterns of drinking displayed by the monkeys reveal aspects of human alcohol consumption such as sipping through drinks and thereby avoiding intoxication, or gulping down drinks that results in rapid intoxication. We also see occasional three- or four-day sprees of very heavy drinking, voluntary periods of abstinence, morning tremors, and relapses to heavy drinking after imposed periods of abstinence. The self-administration procedure allows for sophisticated analysis of time course and threshold changes in how genes are modified with continued drinking and in vivo imaging of brain adaptations to chronic alcohol consumption.

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