The Heilig Translational Psychiatry Lab

Preclinical group

We use animal models to discover molecular and neural mechanisms that cause a progression into alcohol addiction, and to identify novel targets for pharmacological addiction treatments.

Although use of alcohol is common, most users do not develop addiction. In a vulnerable minority of users, however, motivation to obtain alcohol increases, alcohol taking escalates, and use becomes insensitive to negative outcomes. This marks a progression into addiction, and is caused by long term changes in the function of neuronal circuits that control motivation and emotion.

We study the cellular and molecular mechanisms that cause this transition. Using animal models, we have found that prolonged exposure of the brain to cycles of alcohol intoxication and withdrawal reprograms gene expression in neurons of the frontal lobes and the amygdala. This causes the behavioral changes that are at the core of addiction, and is driven by epigenetic mechanisms that offer novel targets for medications. 

Markus Heilig's preclinical research group at CSAN. Photo credit Magnus Johansson