When Elizabeth A. Heller says she researches drug addiction, people may have misconceptions about her area of expertise. “People may think that addiction research is only about behavior,” says Heller, assistant professor of pharmacology and head of a neuroepigenetics lab.
Elizabeth Heller, assistant professor of pharmacology and head of the Heller Lab.
Instead, Heller’s work and the work of his 10-person lab focus on the molecular mechanisms of the brain, with the goal of uncovering chronic changes that can occur and continue to occur in the brain long after exposure to addictive substances such as cocaine.
“I was drawn back to Penn because not only was it my alma mater, but it was the home of innovative and stimulating neuroscience and epigenetic research and the leading scientists leading discovery in the field. It was a place that it fostered my love for research,” she says.
Heller’s field, neuroepigenetics, deals with changes in gene expression caused by the environment inside the brain.
“The genes, which we inherit from our parents and their parents, are not as closed as we think. They are susceptible to change due to environmental effects. Much of our research in my lab revolves around the role of chromatin, a complex of DNA and proteins within a cell’s nucleus, in the neuroepigenetics and effects of cocaine. It is a drug that only produces chemical addiction in a minority of users. But among those who become addicted, the likelihood that someone will quit smoking completely increases if they can abstain from using for a year. This led my colleagues and I to think that something happens in the brain in late withdrawal that can help patients recover.”
Heller cites her experience as an undergraduate at Penn as her inspiration for both her research and her role as teacher of this generation of students.
“I was honestly inspired by all the early experiences I had in the lab, like the ones I had as an undergrad at Penn, and the researchers who gave me the opportunity to question and explore. I think I owe the same support to young scientists I work with today,” he says.
“Furthermore, those with a substance use disorder continue to be stigmatized. Drugs affect people in different ways. And while it is clear that drugs like cocaine are harmful, this should not prevent scientists from investigate the scientific mechanisms behind it.”
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Source: Elizabeth Heller’s lab discovers how drug addiction can create lasting changes in genes