I am a fourth-year PhD student in Dr. Anthony L. Riley's Psychopharmacology Laboratory at American University. I am currently in the process of completing my Doctoral Dissertation research titled, "The effect of a western diet on compulsive cocaine self-administration", which I was recently chosen to receive American University's Center for Behavioral Neuroscience's Summer 2017 Research Award.
Specifically, although obesity and drug addiction are historically believed to be two qualitatively different disorders, a recent and prevalent theme in the research suggests that they may result from similar mechanisms that usurp the neural circuits mediating reward, motivated learning and memory in the brain. While addiction has been characterized as a brain disease (Leshner, 1997), many others have also characterized the hedonic and homeostatic properties of natural rewards, like food, to be similar in nature to that of drugs of abuse and have posited that obesity functions as a brain disease as well, often being mediated by common neuroanatomical substrates (Hone-Blanchet and Fecteau, 2014; Kenny, 2011a; Kenny 2011b). Given the parallels between obesity and addiction, it might be expected that a history with one would affect the likelihood of the other, i.e., animals that develop obesity with exposure to a specific diet may display an increased amount of compulsive drug taking. Interestingly, the limited research on the topic has only investigated the dietary effects of a purely high fat diet (HFD) on compulsive drug taking (see discussion below, Wellman et al., 2007; Puhl et al., 2011) rather than the more clinically and translationally relevant levels of high saturated fats, carbohydrates and sugars which characterizes a Western Diet (Davidson et al., 2012). Of the literature exploring the relationship between the consumption of a HFD on compulsive drug taking, none has investigated the effects of obesity induced by a Western diet during adolescence on compulsive drug taking in adulthood. Given that the prevalence of adolescent obesity and that obesity has increased dramatically from 1994 to 2014 (Fryar et al., 2016; Ogden et al., 2016), this absence in the literature is surprising and demands attention.
In an effort to develop a more translational pre-clinical model investigating whether obesity induced during adolescence influences compulsive drug use in adults, appropriate diets and behavioral assessments should be considered. Accordingly, my dissertation is examining the effects of obesity induced during adolescence on compulsive drug taking in adults, utilizing a more translational Western diet that incorporates high levels of saturated fat, carbohydrates and sugar, rather than a purely HFD, to induce obesity in adolescents. Lastly, we will assess compulsive cocaine self-administration through the use of a variety of assays of drug addiction, e.g., drug escalation (Ahmed and Koob, 1998), drug choice (Ahmed, 2010) and "addiction-like" behaviors including fixed ratio, signaled time out periods, and progressive ratio rates of responding (Deroche-Gamonet et al., 2004), providing a comprehensive assessment of drug use and abuse.
In addition to developing a systematic program of research, I have worked hard to also teach and mentor students in many different environments. As an undergraduate, I transferred from Northern Virginia Community College and was fortunate to have received a full scholarship to attend James Madison University through the Centennial Scholars Program, a program crafted to mentor and support low socioeconomic status students. In this sense, I am familiar with some of the obstacles that inhibit student growth and have worked to help other students overcome them. I am currently an Adjunct Professor at the Alexandria campus of the Northern Virginia Community College, as well as at American University, where I teach and advise students. I hope to one day attain a faculty position at a university where I can teach, conduct research, and eventually develop a scholarship program to support low SES students in science.