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By Russ Cooper
Three Concordia researchers have been reconfirmed as Canada Research Chairs (CRC), as announced March 26 by the Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State, Science and Technology.
Psychology Professor Uri Shalev is reconfirmed as Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Neurobiology of Drug Use; Professor Vincent Martin as the CRC (Tier 2) in Microbial Genomics and Engineering; and Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Chris Wilds as the CRC (Tier 2) in Biological Chemistry.
Over their renewed five-year terms, each researcher will receive $100 000 annually, injecting a total $1.5 million in research funding to Concordia.
“It’s really meaningful to have the Chair,” says Shalev. “I guess there’s a kind of recognition for what you have done. So, not surprisingly, it feels nice.”
Since last reporting on his research (see Thursday Report, May 15, 2005), Shalev, who came to Concordia in 2004 for his first term as a CRC, has continued examining the environmental and psychological conditions that trigger drug abuse relapse. Specifically, he’s focused on the effects of food deprivation as a source of stress.
“I know where in the brain I want to look, but now I want to look at particular neurons and their pathways,” he says. “If we know that, we can come up with ways to interfere with those pathways, and that might allow us to modify behaviour.
“This renewal will allow me to get to the next phase.”
The shift from lab rats to human subjects in his research is one Shalev is eager to further in his renewed CRC term. Utilizing a method he began using six months ago, Shalev will continue using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) on the human brain – a technique which creates an image of the live human brain while it’s working.
“With prolonged restriction, the brain and body adapt. People who are dieting go on long restrictions,” Shalev says. “During which time, there are all sorts of signals that go back and forth between the brain and the body, something I’m really interested in. By doing this, we’re opening a whole new area to look into.”
In one of his most recent experiments, he’s been using the FMRI technology to examine the brains of smokers who are subjected to a regulated and reduced diet, scrutinizing the difference in nicotine cravings after eating versus while hungry. “This will allow us a peek into the brain of hungry addicts,” he says.
His research isn’t directly related to developing treatment. Rather, he is providing the scientific information for industry to potentially create treatment – a dynamic he knows well. Before coming to Concordia, Shalev was head of the behavioural laboratory in a pharmaceutical company in his native Israel.
“When you’re in basic research, you never know what it will take for someone to catch onto something you’ve found and come up with a real world treatment.”
He says a “magic pill” to cure relapse behaviour is still elusive, if possible at all, as he’s finding the interactions between physiological and neurological systems are more complex than previously understood. He questions the moral and social implications of a treatment to make a person ‘unaddicted.’
“It would be great to have a ‘magic pill’, but we’re finding triggers have different neurochemical systems for relapse. If you’re treating stress risk, you may not be protected from re-exposure to drugs.”