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Psychopharmacology Lab 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

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Katie Nelson

Katie Nelson, Psychopharmacology Lab

Curriculum Vitae

I am a doctoral candidate in the Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience program located within the Neuroscience Department at American University in Washington, DC. I work with my advisor, Dr. Tony Riley, on rodent models of synthetic cathinone use (also known as “bath salts”, “research chemicals” or “legal highs”).

I have 10 years of combined preclinical and clinical neuroscience research experience that comes from having worked in four research laboratories including the Psychopharmacology Lab at AU. Before my enrollment at American University, I was a member of Dr. J. Leigh Leasure’s Behavioral Neuroscience Lab and Dr. Merrill Hiscock’s Clinical Neuroscience Lab at The University of Houston - Main Campus, and then Dr. M. Waleed Gaber’s Research Laboratory working in pediatric hematology-oncology, radiation research and small animal imaging at the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. 

My goals in behavioral neuroscience have involved understanding the way drugs affect behavior; including drug taking, use and abuse, and the factors that may influence addiction vulnerability (for example, biological sex and drug history).

I have spent the last 5 years researching α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (aka α-PVP or “flakka”). α-PVP is a synthetic cathinone that can be described as being “cocaine-like” in that its mechanism of action in the brain is similar to that of cocaine’s. The difference is that while cocaine blocks the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, α-PVP only blocks the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine (and depending on what endpoint you’re assessing, is at least 10x more potent than cocaine).

Our Psychopharmacology Lab predominantly focuses on the affective properties of both therapeutic and recreational compounds. Specifically, drug use and abuse are thought to be a function of an affective balance, such that rewarding effects of the drug support intake while its aversive effects limit it. The studies I have performed have focused on behavioral assays that index these affective properties and employed designs such as conditioned taste avoidance (CTA) (assesses aversive effects) and conditioned place preference (CPP) (assesses rewarding effects). CTA takes advantage of an animal’s tendency to avoid consumption of ordinarily preferred drug-paired solutions (for example, water sweetened with saccharin), presumably due to an association between the taste (the conditioned stimulus, CS) and the drug’s aversive effects (the unconditioned stimulus, US). CPP is used as a measure for reward as the animal associates a distinct environment with a drug’s rewarding effects and as such will spend more time in the drug-paired environment. I have used these experimental designs both separately and currently (a combined CTA/CPP design) to assess the balance of reward and aversion associated with α-PVP. These two effects ultimately impact the likelihood of self-administration which is a measure of reinforcement and used to predict abuse liability. In addition to these assays, I have assessed the ability of α-PVP to produce hyperactivity and thermoregulation (effects that contribute to toxic reactions in humans, e.g., potentially fatal increases in body temperature and extreme tremor disorder) under different experimental contexts.

I am in the final stages of data collection for my dissertation. My current project is centered on the effects of a drug history on the rewarding, aversive, thermoregulatory and activity effects of racemic α-PVP in adult male Sprague-Dawley rats. This work is following assessments of α-PVP in terms of its aversive, rewarding and thermoregulatory effects (Master’s Thesis), as well as α-PVP’s chirality, mechanism of action in the brain and sex as a biological variable (Dissertation). 

I am anticipating defending my dissertation titled "Characterizing the neurochemical, physiological and behavioral effects of the synthetic cathinone α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (α-PVP)" in May of 2021. I am currently seeking postdoctoral appointments that focus on the neuroscience of drug use and abuse, drug dependence and addiction in either clinical or preclinical settings.