The Atwood Lab focuses on the impact of opioids and alcohol on neurotransmission in the dorsal striatum (caudate and putamen nuclei in humans), a brain region that controls goal-directed and habitual actions. Researchers are specifically exploring how these substances change the connections between this brain region and other parts of the brain, including the cerebral cortex and the thalamus. The primary finding is that these substances have a very unique effect on the connection between the insular cortex and the dorsolateral striatum (putamen). The insular cortex is an interoceptive part of the brain, meaning it processes awareness of the body’s current state (intoxication, drug cravings, hunger, pain, etc). The dorsolateral striatum controls habitual behaviors.
The Atwood Lab is working to understand the significance of the connection between these two parts of the brain using in vivo optogenetics and brain slice electrophysiology in combination with mutant mice. This allows the research team to control the activity of this connection in behaving animals, and also to probe its functionality at the cellular level using microscopy and in vitro techniques. The lab is studying the molecular changes that are unique to this connection that may explain its sensitivity to drugs of abuse. A variety of mouse behavioral tests are used to determine behavioral outcomes of manipulating this connection. The research team hopes to identify a novel therapeutic target to undo the changes that drugs produce in this neurocircuit.
Other interests of the lab include how diet, pain and stress have both similar and divergent effects on these neurocircuits as drugs of abuse. In addition, the lab is exploring whether or not a genetic predisposition to drug abuse produces intrinsic alterations to dorsal striatal neurotransmission.
Work within the Atwood Lab is currently funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.