Researcher Feels Driven to Understand Addiction
Center for BrainHealth Prof Says New Technology Shedding Light on Problem
Jan. 12, 2011
Addiction – to gambling, to alcohol, to food, to any compulsive human behavior without regard to consequences – can ruin lives.
Dr. Francesca Filbey, a new researcher in the Center for BrainHealth and an assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is an expert on the subject who wants to learn still more. “I hope to be able to reveal the interactions between genetic and environmental factors that lead to addiction,” she said about her research.
The brain’s ingenious plasticity, or the ability to alter itself as circumstances dictate, “is best demonstrated in the addicted brain,” Dr. Filbey noted. She described how drugs and alcohol “hijack the brain” so that its reward system, which evolved in order to keep humankind sustained, stops responding to natural rewards such as food when more potent stimuli – such as the buzz from powerful intoxicants – are introduced into the system. Brain plasticity occurs so that the organ can adapt to these changes – what Dr. Filbey terms “heightened levels of reward” – in order to maintain proper equilibrium. “It is the brain’s ability to change and adapt that attracted me to the field of addiction,” she said.
Dr. Filbey, who graduated from King's College in London and arrived at her Dallas research base via the University of New Mexico’s Mind Research Network, says today’s research is buoyed by technological innovations that are illuminating once-hidden pieces of addiction puzzles.
“Advances in imaging and genetics methods show us that there are individuals who are at higher risk for addiction due to a hypo-responsive reward system, [meaning] this group requires more stimulation in order to experience the same amount of pleasure as those not at risk,” she said. Sadly, within this group the hypo-responsive reward network is “also accompanied by an inefficient control system” which makes keeping the urges in check extremely difficult despite all potential negative consequences.
It was BrainHealth’s potential that brought Dr. Filbey here. “The Center bridges innovations in science with a practical approach that facilitates solutions to today’s critical questions,” she explained. “In my short time here, I have been impressed by the synergistic relationship that BrainHealth has with the local community, which is truly a unique quality.” She added that state-of-the-art facilities, ample resource accessibility and “the overwhelming collegiality of scientists and staff” at the Center quickly sold her on making it her research home.