Research projects

Enhancing endocannabinoid tone to treat PTSD 

Professor Markus Heilig and Principal Research Engineer Leah Mayo.Professor Markus Heilig and Research Fellow Leah Mayo. Photo credit Anna NilsenThe endocannabinoid system is a neuromodulatory system implicated in stress reactivity and affective processing. Recently, it has been proposed as a potential novel target to treat stress-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We have shown that enhancing levels of the endocannabinoid ligand anandamide can facilitate the extinction of learned fear responses and protect against the negative effects of stress in healthy adults. The current project will determine whether this mechanism can facilitate PTSD treatment when combined with an exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition to clinical outcomes, we will also obtain neural and psychophysiological biomarkers of emotional learning and stress reactivity. Together, this project has the potential to improve the clinical care of PTSD patients and elucidate novel biomarkers of treatment response. This project is a collaborative effort between Markus Heilig (clinical component) and Leah Mayo (laboratory component).

Endocannabinoid contributions to alcohol-related effects

researcher attach small electrodes to a young woman's faceBy measuring the activity of small facial muscles, the researchers can detect whether the subject reacts with discomfort, joy, surprise or another emotion. Photo credit Anna NilsenPreclinical evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system contributes to the rewarding effects of drugs, including alcohol. The goal of this project is to explore how the endocannabinoid system influences response to alcohol in humans. This pharmacological functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study includes tasks assessing multiple aspects of reward processing, subjective mood and drug effects, and real-time changes in endocannabinoid levels following alcohol consumption. Using computational modeling and machine learning techniques, we will assess how alcohol influences the brain and behavior, and whether this is modulated by the endocannabinoid system. This project sets the stage for future work exploring how alcohol-endocannabinoid interactions change as problematic drinking behaviors develop and persist.