Professor of Neuro Psychiatry
I hope I can contribute to people seeing those who have addiction problems with new eyes, to people understanding that it is not a matter of character flaw, but rather how a number of gene variations accumulated to make someone vulnerable.
Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine (IKE)
Division of Neuro- and Inflammation Sciences (NIV)
“It is unacceptable not to give addicts the right healthcare”
Collaboration to find causes of and treatments for addiction
Markus Heilig is the director of the Centre for Social and Affective Neuroscience (CSAN), where knowledge and methods from different fields of neuroscience, both basal and clinical, are integrated. Collaboration between the health sciences, brain research and psychiatry is the only way forward to getting at the increase in alcohol-related diseases.
With the help of images taken with an MRI scanner, brain research has come a long way towards understanding the mechanisms that control drug and alcohol dependency. Psychiatry has also made advances, but the two have never met. This is one of the problems Professor Heilig hopes he will be able to solve.
One of the paths is based on a brain structure with the mysterious name of amygdala, the Greek word for almond. The amygdala is a centre for feelings, and it has been found that drinking results in an increase in the hormone corticotrophin releasing factor, or CRF, here. If a substance is added, for example neuropeptide Y, the negative feelings are neutralised – as is the desire to stop them with alcohol.
The other promising strategy is blocking the path of substance P, a neurotransmitter that signals pain and stress. In a clinical study, 50 anxiety-ridden alcoholics were admitted to the hospital for a month. Half of them were given a drug—LY686017—that had earlier been tested against depression; the other half formed a control group who received a placebo with no effect. Over time, they were carefully monitored by the researchers with blood tests, interviews, and neuroimaging.
The participants were shown pictures while they were in the magnetic resonance imager. Those who were given the placebo displayed strong reactions in certain regions of the brain when they were shown disturbing pictures (a car accident, for example), but weak reactions to positive pictures of children and animals. The results were the opposite in those who were given the medicine.
The conclusion was that the study supports the hypothesis that LY686017 represses the stress and negative feelings behind anxiety-driven alcohol dependence.
The magnetic resonance imager–and its opportunities for studying processes in the brain (fMRI)—has become an important tool in Professor Heilig’s research.
Professor Heilig’s research in Linköping will be a further development of earlier projects:
- Social stress as a factor for affective disorders and dependency disorders, from mice to men in fMRI. Collaboration with David Engblom and Bud Craig.
- Treatment development: the search for molecules that play a role in these disorders.
- Personalized medicine: people are different and react differently to the same treatment. Many drugs work for some people but not at all for others. One example is Naltrexon, registered for alcoholics. 15 percent of the patients have a gene that yields a good effect from the medicine, but for the other 85 percent it is generally ineffective.
Professor Heilig´s publications
Researchers in the same research area
Senior Lecturer of Neuro Physiology
Last updated: Thu Aug 25 09:27:54 CEST 2016