The National Institutes of Health has awarded Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center a grant worth an estimated $8 million over five years for the establishment of a new center for research into alcohol addiction.
Although the opioid crisis has captured headlines recently, alcohol abuse continues to be a major problem in this country. Over the past 15 years, an estimated 90,000 people a year have died from alcohol-related problems as compared to the roughly 59,000 people who died from opioid overdoses in 2016.
“This will be the only center in the country to focus specifically on understanding why some people are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to alcohol than others,” said Jeff Weiner, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist and the center’s director.
“We hope to identify the ‘neural fingerprint’ or brain biomarker for addiction, which could help scientists develop better medications and interventions. Right now, most of the medications available for the treatment of addiction don’t work very well, and relapse rates are about 80 percent in the first year.”
The Wake Forest Translational Alcohol Research Center (WF-TARC) will employ preclinical animal models and clinical research to study behavioral and neurobiological factors associated with vulnerability and resilience to alcohol use disorder (AUD). The new center builds on a highly productive translational alcohol research program at Wake Forest Baptist that was established with prior support from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
WF-TARC will focus on people who are heavy drinkers and are on the path to addiction but are not yet alcoholics, Weiner said. The research team will use sophisticated brain imaging provided by functional MRI to identify neural signatures that differentiate vulnerable from resilient people. Craving, which is the strongest predictor of relapse in alcoholics, will be used as a behavioral measure of vulnerability.
“In earlier research we found that heavy drinkers who have high levels of craving have different patterns of connectivity in different parts of the brain than those who don’t,” Weiner said. “We’ll be building on those findings to try to identify specific brain changes that differentiate high- and low-craving heavy drinkers.”
Weiner’s team also plans to integrate brain imaging with interventions such as mindfulness meditation for high-craving individuals with AUD.
The co-director of the WF-TARC is Sara Jones, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology, and the scientific director is Brian McCool, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology, at Wake Forest Baptist.