Megan Cooke

Student researches 'subtle biological differences' of addiction

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Binge drinking is a growing problem in the United States, but are all problem drinkers the same? That is a question Virginia Commonwealth University student Megan Cooke hopes to answer.

Cooke has been interested in alcohol dependence and alcohol use behavior since receiving a postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award to work at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. She quickly realized the importance of genetic influences in the development of addiction — “Ignoring [the genetics] would be ignoring a huge piece of the puzzle.” That’s when she set out to study the genetic and neurobehavioral influences on addiction by enrolling as a member of the first cohort of Ph.D. students in the Psychiatric, Behavioral, and Statistical Genetics program at the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

In order to continue her work, Cooke was granted the prestigious National Research Service Award by the NIAAA. This $68,740 award, spread over two years, will help support Cooke’s continued research hoping to differentiate the biological influences involved in the development of and progression to addiction.

Historically, addiction studies consider substance abusers as a single group, but Cooke hypothesizes that there are actually different types with differing biological etiologies.

Megan’s project is exciting in that it brings together psychology, genetics and brain imaging to understand what contributes to different pathways of risk for alcohol problems.

“Megan’s project is important in that it addresses the heterogeneity that exists among drinkers,” said Danielle Dick, Ph.D., Cooke’s mentor and a former director of the PBSG program. “People drink for very different reasons — some drink to cope, others drink because they are impulsive and sensation-seeking. But often these differences are ignored when people study factors that cause problem drinking. Megan’s project is exciting in that it brings together psychology, genetics and brain imaging to understand what contributes to different pathways of risk for alcohol problems.”

As part of her project, Cooke will utilize the VCU Collaborative Advanced Research on Imaging facility, a 6,000-square-foot research space that houses a research-dedicated 3T MRI scanner, where Cooke will use fMRI technology to examine potential differences in the reward sensitivity, behavioral inhibition and emotion reactivity of her subjects. F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the VCU CCTR and the VCU Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies said, “This is an excellent training project from an outstanding student that will advance the science of addictions.”

So what’s next for Megan? She plans to start participant recruitment for the neuroimaging portion this fall. She will utilize VCU’s Spit for Science sample, a longitudinal cohort study on the genetic and environmental influences on substance use and emotional health. And hopefully, one day, her work will have an impact on an ever-growing epidemic.

As Cooke said, “I believe that the more we understand about the subtle biological differences in how and who becomes addicted, the better we will be at treating individuals. Hopefully, the findings of this project will contribute to that understanding.”


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