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Understanding the brain on drugs

Western Psychology Professor Jeff Grimm poses in his neuroscience lab, Friday, Sept. 30. // Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.
Western Psychology Professor Jeff Grimm poses in his neuroscience lab, Friday, Sept. 30. // Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.

Whether it’s somebody you know, a celebrity in the news or a stranger on the street, many are impacted by the dangers of addiction. Between 2000 and 2014, around half a million Americans died from overdoses, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While rehabilitation facilities help those in need of treatment, the roots of addiction have yet to be fully understood.

The National Institute of Health has been investigating the brain chemistry behind addiction and sensations of craving for a number of years. This type of research is being conducted right here on Western’s campus.

Psychology professor Jeff Grimm and his lab team, composed of students and graduates, have been awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Institute of Health. Grimm and his team have been conducting ongoing experiments that observe the neurobiology of relapse.

“He’s exemplary in his techniques and able to provide us with the information, supplies and equipment that we need to do our jobs properly.”

Edwin Glueck

Edwin Glueck, 26, a research technologist on Grimm’s team as well as a former student of his, describes Grimm as very talented and passionate about his work.

“He’s exemplary in his techniques and able to provide us with the information, supplies and equipment that we need to do our jobs properly,” Glueck said. “We always have whatever we need.”

According to Grimm’s website, the projects look at molecular events in the brain related to the craving-reducing effect of environmental enrichment, specifically how a person’s immediate surroundings impact cravings.

“For a heroin addict, they might see an insulin syringe left behind in a bathroom, and it becomes a stimulant,” Grimm said. “Or if you’re a smoker and you see somebody smoking or smell smoke. All of that is what we were interested in; what’s going on in the brain.”

The team’s research focuses on time-dependent changes in relapse behavior in rats trained to self-administer sugar or a cocaine solution. Grimm said the craving behavior of the animals was actually similar with both substances.

This research is what led Grimm to pursue studying the neurobiology of craving, bringing physiology and behavior together, he said. He had done similar work in a government lab for the National Institute of Health after being an undergraduate student at Whitman College, he said.

Professor Jeff Grimm inspects the enrichment cages that the rats live in during his research. The cages are designed to provide environmental enrichment to the rodent subjects. // Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.
Professor Jeff Grimm inspects the enrichment cages that the rats live in during his research. The cages are designed to provide environmental enrichment to the rodent subjects. // Photo by Morgan Stilp-Allen.

After graduating from Whitman with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in experimental psychology at Washington State University.

Before coming to Western, Grimm performed experiments with the National Institute of Drug Abuse, in part with the National Institute of Health in Baltimore. His previous research involving the study of craving is what helped him decide what direction to go in upon joining Western’s psychology department.

The significance of observing this type of behavior in animals is that it will contribute to research regarding brain activity related to the feeling of craving. This ties into larger concepts such as drug addiction and obesity.

As far as future research goes, Grimm said the team’s work is just a piece of the puzzle. 

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