Dr. Laura O'Dell

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Department of Psychology

Dr. O’Dell’s research program is focused on the neural mechanisms that mediate addiction to drugs of abuse.Specifically, she is interested in studying the neural basis for enhanced tobacco use among vulnerable populations, such as adolescents, females, and persons with diabetes.

Research questions:

  • What are the age and sex differences that facilitate the development of tobacco abuse?
  • What is the nature of the neurochemical and genetic changes that are produced by nicotine exposure and withdrawal from this drug?
  • What is the role of various neurotransmitter systems in regulating nicotine and alcohol dependence?
  • What are the mechanisms that mediate enhanced vulnerability to drug abuse in diabetic individuals?

Significance of the work: The goal of our laboratory is to provide a better understanding of how various brain neurotransmitter systems play a role in driving drug addiction behavior across various clinical populations. As an example, we have seen that increased anxiety and changes in stress-related genes are increased to a greater extent in female versus male subjects. Thus, stress produced by anxiety is believed to be an important factor contributing to enhanced vulnerability to tobacco abuse in young females. This finding coincides with human clinical reports indicating that females relapse to smoking due to intense anxiety produced by nicotine withdrawal. More recent studies have also shown that diabetic states produce an increase in the rewarding effects of nicotine. These data suggest that greater rewarding effects of nicotine may contribute to greater susceptibility to tobacco abuse among diabetic patients.  

Methods to be learned: Dr. O’Dell’s laboratory combines neurochemical and molecular approaches with behavioral models to study how various pathways in the brain modulate addictive behavior. The students in this project will be exposed to behavioral tests that assess the rewarding effects of drugs of abuse such as, self-administration and conditioned place preference methods. The neurochemical methods in our laboratory include in vivo microdialysis for neurotransmitter level estimation, changes in gene expression using qtPCR, changes in protein levels using Western Blot procedures, and changes in drug metabolism using various ELISA methods. Taken together, the student training will involve an interdisciplinary approach that integrates behavioral tests with various biochemical research tools.