Elizabeth Heller’s lab discovers how drug addiction can create lasting changes in genes

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When Elizabeth A. Heller says she does addiction research, people may have misconceptions about her area of ​​expertise. “People may think addiction research is just about behavior,” says Heller, an assistant professor of pharmacology and director of a neuroepigenetics lab.

Elizabeth Heller, assistant professor of pharmacology and director of the Heller Lab.

Instead, Heller’s work and the work of his 10-person lab focus on the molecular mechanisms of the brain, aiming to uncover the chronic changes that can occur and continue to occur in the brain long after the end of life. exposure to addictive substances like cocaine.

“I was drawn to Penn because not only was it my alma mater, but it was home to innovative and challenging neuroscience and epigenetics research and leading scientists leading discoveries in the field. It was a place that nurtured my love of investigation,” she says.

Heller’s field, neuroepigenetics, deals with environmentally caused changes in gene expression in the brain.

“The genes, which we inherit from our parents and their parents, are not locked in as we thought. They are subject to change due to environmental effects. Much of our research in my lab revolves around the role of chromatin – a complex of DNA and proteins in the nucleus of a cell – in neuroepigenetics and the effects of cocaine. It is a drug that is only chemically addictive in a minority of users. But among those who become addicted, the likelihood of someone quitting completely increases if they can abstain from use for a year. It made me and my colleagues think that there is something going on in the brain during late abstinence that can help patients recover.

Heller cites her experience as an undergraduate at Penn as inspiration for her research and her role as a teacher for this generation of students.

“I was genuinely inspired by all of the early experiences I had in the lab, like those I had as an undergraduate at Penn, and the researchers who gave me the opportunity to question and explore. I feel I owe that same support to the young scientists I work with today,” she says.

“Furthermore, those with substance use disorders continue to be stigmatized. Drugs affect people in various ways. And while it’s clear that drugs like cocaine are harmful, that fact shouldn’t stop scientists from looking for the scientific mechanisms behind them.

Learn more at Penn Medicine News.

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