I am a second year doctoral student in the behavior, cognition and neuroscience program at American University. My research interests center around the motivational properties of marijuana and their neurobiological mediation, including how a number of environmental and experiential factors influence marijuana use and abuse. Our lab investigates the affective properties of abused drugs using animal models. Although the rewarding properties of a given compound are typically described as driving its abuse, we posit that both the rewarding and aversive effects of a drug impact drug-taking behavior and that assessing these stimulus properties can enable better predictions of abuse liability.
Marijuana abuse is particularly difficult to study in animals, as there is currently no reliable pre-clinical rat model. The majority of my research has focused on developing a viable rodent model by assessing factors that are known to enhance the rewarding properties of abused drugs, and more recently, attempting to bridge the gap between human recreational marijuana use (typically inhalation of the plant material) versus drug administration in animal research (intraperitoneal injections of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana).
In my master’s thesis, I sought to optimize the conditions under which THC’s rewarding properties might be demonstrated by giving rats a history of THC prior to an assessment of its subjective effects (i.e. place and taste conditioning). My data showed that although a drug history of THC clearly weakened its aversive effects, there was no corresponding rise in reward. These findings indicate that even when the negative subjective effects of THC (likely anxiety, paranoia, etc.) are eliminated, rats do not find THC rewarding. However, the marijuana plant includes over 80 other phytocannabinoids besides THC that likely modulate its overall subjective effect. As such, my current work is investigating cannabidiol (CBD), a prominent phytocannabinoid known for its therapeutic properties, and its impact on THC’s affective profile. I am also evaluating whether the expression of cannabinoid reward and aversion is sexually dimorphic and if such differences are dependent on ovarian hormones.