The Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research welcomed two University of Texas at Austin scientists to its affiliated faculty last Fall: Luis A. Natividad, assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy, Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Caitlin Orsini, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts, Department of Psychology.
Natividad, who received his B.S. in Psychology from UT Austin, seeks to understand how protein signaling in the brain contributes to behavioral dysfunction in addiction.
Natividad combines mass spectrometry and behavioral approaches to identify signaling pathways that regulate symptoms of “the ‘dark side’ of addiction,” which involves maladaptive changes in mood and cognition that help perpetuate drug use. These symptoms, Natividad says, are “one of the factors that we know can have a profound impact on addiction behavior.”
He is especially interested in cognitive impairments, such as impulsivity and compulsivity, that emerge during alcohol withdrawal. He plans to examine proteomic changes in cortical brain areas to determine mechanisms behind disrupted cognitive function in addiction. “By understanding the molecular changes that are driven by substance abuse, it may be possible to stall or reverse these changes with novel therapeutics.”
Natividad also looks forward to collaboration and mentorship opportunities afforded by the Waggoner Center. “The reality is that science is not done in isolation and each of us contributes information that promotes the basic understanding and correction of a significant problem.”
Orsini received her B.S. in Psychology with a Behavioral Neuroscience concentration from Washington College in Chestertown, MD, and did her graduate training in the Biopsychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan. She investigates the effects of chronic stimulant and opioid use on decision-making.
Increased risk taking and impulsivity are behavioral consequences of long-term substance abuse that contribute to continued drug use and relapse after abstinence. Using rodent models of drug use and decision-making along with “techniques allowing for monitoring and manipulating brain activity in real time,” Orsini aims to develop “strategies to treat this behavioral deficit and, ultimately, drug use itself.”
Orsini, who also has appointments in Neurology and Psychiatry at Dell Medical School, notes that the interaction between decision-making and substance use differs between males and
females. Studying these differences is an important component of her work. “We are only beginning to understand how complex cognitive functions become compromised after substance abuse, and how these alterations may be sex-dependent.”
At the Waggoner Center, Orsini hopes to make an impact towards eradicating substance abuse and cultivate passion in the next generation of neuroscientists. She’s motivated to “train young scientists to think critically, conduct rigorous scientific experiments and communicate their findings effectively.”