UTHSC recruits N.C. team that studies substance use, suicidality in youth

SAN ANTONIO (Dec. 6, 2007) – Stemming the rising tide of adolescent substance use and related suicidal behaviors is the goal of an internationally known research group that recently relocated to The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio from North Carolina.

The Health Science Center committed approximately $2 million to bring this research group to San Antonio. The team’s bench research and clinical trials are expected to lead to effective substance use prevention and intervention programs in the community.

“Adolescence is a key time when young people learn to control and regulate their behavior,” said the team leader, Donald Dougherty, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Neurobehavioral Research Laboratory and Clinic (NRLC) at the Health Science Center. “Substance use can derail this self-regulation. Our team seeks to determine how an individual’s unique personal characteristics either promote, or protect against, development of substance use disorders and the frequent co-occurrence of suicidal behaviors.”

The research group includes a child/adolescent psychiatrist and scientists with expertise in neurobiology, behavior, pharmacology and other disciplines. They will launch a longitudinal project to document the development and outcomes of substance use in San Antonio young people.

It is estimated that half of all youth use marijuana before graduating from high school. Alarmingly, 8 percent to 10 percent of high school students report making a suicide attempt.

Understandings derived from the laboratory will lay the foundation for other prevention trials. Conducting prevention trials in the community will provide information to guide future basic science investigations, the researchers said.

“We will be able to impact the health and welfare of at-risk youth in our community, and at the same time we will also develop more-effective interventions that can be adopted nationally,” Dr. Dougherty said.

This group of well-established scientists brings several million dollars in National Institutes of Health support to San Antonio. The grants are from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Dr. Dougherty previously spent nine years on the faculty of the UT Health Science Center at Houston, and he came to San Antonio from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, where he was professor and vice chairman for research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. His Ph.D. in experimental psychology is from Ohio University.

Dr. Dougherty’s team includes three other core faculty. Dr. Michael Dawes, a child/adolescent psychiatrist, is studying behavioral effects of abstaining from alcohol, marijuana and other drugs of abuse. His M.D. is from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and his postgraduate training included work at Harvard Children’s Hospital and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Dr. Charles Matthias is interested in the psychophysiological mechanisms involved in aggressive and impulsive behaviors. One of his current research topics is impulsivity and decision making in adolescents who abuse marijuana. His Ph.D. is from the University of New Orleans.

Dr. Dawn Richard is interested in the genetics of addiction and also in serotonin, a chemical that relays biological signals in the brain and nervous system and is linked to mood regulation. Her Ph.D. is from the UT Health Science Center at Houston.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $576 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $15.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 22,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields.

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