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Studying Drugs' Aversive Effects

By Angela Modany

Andrey Verendeev

(Photo: Angela Modany)

Psychology graduate student Andrey Verendeev is one busy guy. He is a research assistant in Professors Anthony Riley’s and David Kearns’s labs and is preparing to teach graduate-level psychology classes in the spring. He just published an article that reviews the history of the field in which he is doing research, and he competes with Riley on who can finish reading a book first. Not to mention that he is defending his doctoral dissertation before the end of 2012.

Verendeev’s dissertation research focuses on the aversive effects of drugs and what mediates them.

"If drugs have multiple effects, we should research both at the same time,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to ignore one side of the story.”

Verendeev does his research using rats, which he said are good models for humans. He gives the rats a sugary solution and then injects them with a drug. After several pairings of the sugary solution that the rats liked under normal circumstances, they now avoid it.

“We assume that there must be something aversive, something negative that the drug produced,” he said.

Based on his research so far, Verendeev thinks fear is what might be mediating this avoidance. He said rats cannot vomit, so if they feel sick or uncomfortable shortly after consuming the food, they’ll stay away from it.

“It’s a disruption of homeostasis,” he said. “But what is being disrupted, we don’t really know. It’s very important to understand how drugs act on the brain, on behavior, to help develop countermeasures.”

Verendeev said Canadian scientist Linda Parker, whom he asked to be on his committee when he defends his dissertation, first developed this hypothesis.

“I’m very excited because throughout her research, I’ve admired her work,” he said.

Riley, Verendeev’s advisor and mentor, said the dissertation is “top-notch stuff.”“Andrey is theoretically based, very different from other students. He’s trying to figure out the bigger picture,” he said.<

Verendeev, who is originally from Russia, was earning his undergraduate degree at Bosphorus University in Istanbul, Turkey, when he first contacted Riley.

“I wanted to do research in psychopharmacology. You take a drug and all of a sudden you’re a different person; it’s very interesting,” Verendeev said. “I asked my professor if anyone was doing research on this.”

Verendeev was put in touch with Riley, and for three different summers he worked in Riley’s lab. Then he started to take classes for his graduate degree at AU.

Kearns said he met Verendeev during his third year of the doctorate program. In Kearns’s lab, Verendeev is helping look at the role of the environment in drug taking. The lab, funded by the National Institutes of Health, recently published a paper on a treatment called counterconditioning that is being used in some drug rehabilitation clinics.

“In rehab clinics, they have people snort a line of fake cocaine and then inject them with a drug that makes them throw up,” Kearns said. “So the idea is to condition an aversion to lines of white powder. But we looked at some of the studies and there’s no control group.”

The lab tried the treatment on rats and found that the counterconditioning effects were only temporary, and eventually the rats went back to pressing a lever for more drugs.

“We concluded that it’s really not a good treatment for humans,” Kearns said.

“Quest for learning”

Asked about future plans for his research, Verendeev said he wants to switch fields.

“My real passion is evolutionary theory,” he said. He has dedicated a whole bookshelf to Darwin and evolution. Verendeev said the research is connected in a way with what he is doing now because he is interested in how evolution can be applied to understand human behavior.

“Andrey wants to explain the universe,” Riley said. “Some people aren’t satisfied with surface learning.”

Verendeev is using his interest in psychology and evolution to develop a new graduate-level class for the spring, Evolutionary Psychology.

“I absolutely love teaching,” he said. “My favorite part of teaching is teaching myself, preparing lectures to answer questions.”

Riley said Verendeev is on an “unbelievable quest for learning.”

“He’s more interested in knowledge than a job. Super-smart guy, but a completely bizarre individual,” he said with a laugh. “Andrey is a thinker before he’s a scientist.”