Research that is unraveling the mechanisms of alcohol dependence is proceeding full steam ahead, thanks to a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) MERIT award extension grant recently received by Maharaj K. Ticku, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at the Health Science Center.
MERIT stands for Method to Extend Research In Time. MERIT awards provide long-term, stable support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are distinctly superior and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner. It is an honor bestowed on only the top 1 percent of scientists in the nation.
Dr. Ticku and his team study the NMDA gene, on which an important brain chemical (glutamate) works. This gene is involved on one hand in memory and learning, but too much activation can lead to cell death. This neuronal damage results in memory loss associated with alcohol use, dependence on continued alcohol consumption, and withdrawal seizures.
“In a very novel finding, we have narrowed the list of regulators that are turning this gene on and off,” Dr. Ticku said.
In the journal Molecular Pharmacology, Dr. Ticku and colleagues report that a genetic “code reader” called neuron-restrictive silencer factor slows down the activity of the NMDA gene, while another code reader, cyclic AMP response-building protein, speeds it up.
“We have one transcription factor that increases expression of the NMDA gene, and one that decreases it,” Dr. Ticku said. “This has profound implications for future research.”
Dr. Ticku, who joined the Health Science Center faculty in 1978, is continuously funded by multiple grants from many NIH institutes, include the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).