Quick Project Snapshot

Mechanisms of dopamine phenotype plasticity in adult midbrain neurons

Evidence is emerging that the neurotransmitter used by some adult neurons is regulated by the environment, and that this has behavioral consequences for the animal; a novel form of brain plasticity. Our laboratory has discovered this is true for midbrain dopamine neurons, which are affected in Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and drug addiction, among others. So far we have shown exposing mice to certain environments for 1-2 weeks increases or decreases the number of midbrain dopamine neurons, that this is dependent on neuronal activity, and that it affects their ability to learn new behaviors. We now wish to learn more about this including the identity of midbrain neurons that can up- or down-regulate dopamine synthesis, why they do this, how they do this, and what are the downstream consequences on midbrain dopamine signaling and brain function. The significance of this research is it may lead to new treatments for these diseases and disorders, including those that are environment-based (i.e. drug-free), as well as drug-based, once we identify molecular mechanisms of midbrain dopamine phenotype plasticity. There are a number of honors and PhD projects available as part of this research.

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Addiction Neuroscience Laboratory

The Addiction Neuroscience Group studies how alcohol and other drugs change the brain’s chemistry, structure and function. For example we continue to unravel the circuitry and brain chemistry implicated in stress-induced relapse to alcohol-seeking. This project has been expanded with the recruitment of two new PhD students (Sarah Sulaiman Ch’ng and Leigh Walker). Together, these students are interrogating how and where in the brain specific peptide systems interact to regulate reward-seeking. So far we have identified a novel neural signalling system in the brain for the regulation of stress-induced relapse to alcohol-seeking. Specifically, we have shown that relaxin-3 inputs (likely from the nucleus incertus, NI) to the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) are critical for stress-induced relapse to alcohol-seeking in rats. We are extending this innovative project which will lead the field by further delineating the circuitry and brain chemistry implicated in stress-driven relapse, the major stumbling block in the successful treatment of substance abuse clients. Given the scale and costs of substance abuse disorders, the identification of improved therapeutic approaches will have immediate and sustained impact.

Another related project involves a model of voluntary abstinence from alcohol that is precipitated by the presentation of an adverse consequence following drug use (as occurs in the human situation). Using this model we (Dr Nathan Marchant & Professor Andrew Lawrence) are characterising the circuitry that underpins context-induced relapse to alcohol-seeking following voluntary abstinence. We have identified a potentially critical neural mechanism by which alcohol associated environments promote alcohol seeking during abstinence. We will further unravel the brain mechanisms of relapse to alcohol seeking, and will identify novel brain areas and circuits that future clinical studies can target in treatment-seeking alcoholics.

There is a strong negative correlation between cognitive function and treatment outcome for addicts. An often overlooked factor is that long term alcohol abuse is strongly associated with an accelerated rate of cognitive decline and dementia. Dr Christina Perry has recently been awarded an NHMRC Dementia Fellowship to directly study this problem using validated animal models, with the translationally accepted touchscreen cognitive behavioural platform. Going forwards we will undertake the first comprehensive and systematic analysis of how long term chronic intermittent exposure to alcohol leads to precipitation of behavioural and neuropathological symptoms of dementia. Importantly, we will establish the extent to which these symptoms can be rescued with abstinence, and whether a relatively simple behavioural intervention can enhance this recovery. This study will provide the field with a road map for alcohol-induced cognitive decline. Our results will have important therapeutic applications for an aging population.

Obesity has reached pandemic proportions and is rapidly surpassing smoking as the number one killer in the industrialized world. Dr Robyn Brown (Doherty Fellow), has generated compelling evidence, based on complementary behavioural and electrophysiological approaches, which show that rats prone to diet-induced obesity display ‘addiction-like’ behaviour towards palatable food. Moreover, for the first time we provide evidence of dysregulated glutamate physiology at accumbal synapses in rats prone to obesity. This provides important preliminary evidence to support our central hypothesis that the pathological over-eating commonly observed in diet-induced obesity shares common features with compulsive drug-taking observed in drug addiction. This finding suggests that the management of obesity should incorporate “relapse-prevention” strategies in parallel to weight loss programs, as an adjunct to help reduce episodes of over-eating.

For details of these & other projects please follow the links below.

All Projects by this Lab

Salt, opiates and addictionMechanisms of dopamine phenotype plasticity in adult midbrain neuronsPeptides and stress-induced relapseDiet-induced obesity: is it an addiction?Context-induced relapse after voluntary abstinenceInvestigating Alcohol-Related DementiaAlcohol & striatal adaptation

Behavioural Neuroscience

The Division of Behavioural Neuroscience focuses on the use and development of models that reflect aspects of human disorders such as addiction, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism and neurodegenerative conditions such as Huntington’s disease. The Cognitive Neuroscience group additionally studies cognitive disorders caused by diseases such as stroke (cerebrovascular disease), Alzheimer's disease and other dementias from a clinical perspective.

All Labs that operate in this Division

Addiction Neuroscience LaboratoryDevelopmental Psychobiology LaboratoryEpigenetics and Neural Plasticity LaboratoryGenes Environment and Behaviour LaboratorySynapse Biology and Cognition Laboratory