The Brain on Light

Graduate student Alice Stamatakis uses optogenetics to study the complicated circuitry behind reward, addiction, and aversion.

Alice Stamatakis

By Mark Derewicz, UNC Health Care. Photos by Max Englund, UNC Health Care.

Name: Alice Stamatakis

Birthdate: June 1, 1988

Hometown: Greensboro, NC

Education: B.S., psychology / B.A., biology 2006 / UNC, PhD student / neurobiology / UNC

Dissertation: Brain circuitry underlying reward and aversion

Mentor: Garret Stuber, PhD

Extracurriculars: Planning her wedding, Running, Indy music

Why science:

“I’ve always loved science. In high school, I took AP biology and psychology courses and they were my favorites. At first, I majored in biology. But after my freshman year I added psychology.” As for what she would do with her degrees: “I didn’t really think about it that much, and I didn’t know about [career] options until I did undergraduate research.”

Why research:

“You get to answer questions that no one else knows the answers to. As an undergraduate, I worked in Gina Carelli’s lab here at UNC, looking at how neurons fire in the brains of rodents. When I was a senior I decided to pursue a PhD because I wanted to keep doing research. And if you want to do research, you pretty much have two options: you can get a job as a lab technician and do other people’s research, or you can go to graduate school.”

Why UNC School of Medicine:

“I interviewed at Emory, the University of Virginia, and the Medical College of South Carolina. But I knew that Garret Stuber was coming to UNC. I knew he had been a grad student in Gina Carelli’s lab. She told me that after his postdoc he was coming back to UNC to start his own lab. He uses a pretty new technique called optogenetics, and I really wanted to get into that. Also, during my interview at UNC, I liked the people, and the students I met in the graduate programs seemed happy.”

Why optogenetics?

Optogenetics is a complex technique that allows scientists to use a beam of light to activate or inactivate different brain-signaling pathways in animal models or brain slices. It helps scientists reveal how neurons communicate with each other across different parts of the brain. “It’s a really powerful technique that allows us to answer questions that otherwise would be really hard to answer.”

Research results

Alice Stamatakis-researchIn her most recent paper in the journal Neuron, Stamatakis and colleagues in Stuber’s lab showed that the brain’s reward circuitry is a lot more complicated than originally thought. The classical view is that during a rewarding event, such as drug use or just eating something that tastes good, dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain connect with and release dopamine into neurons in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. And that causes a feeling of reward.

“But we identified a different circuit. We showed that dopamine neurons connect to another part of the brain called the lateral habenula. When we activated that circuit using optigenetics, we noticed that shining light, itself, was rewarding. We also found that the dopamine neurons didn’t release dopamine; they released gabba, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. The gabba shuts down the lateral habenula neurons that are responsible for firing when something is aversive [the opposite of rewarding].”

Implications

“This is a very basic science paper, but if there comes a point where we understand the brain enough to develop drugs that can target specific neuron circuits – and that would be ideal for treating certain diseases – then our work identifies a novel circuit we could target. That’s because we know this circuit is involved in reward and aversion – the types of behaviors that become altered in people with neuropsychological diseases, such as drug addiction, anxiety disorders, and depression. The more specific the treatment – all the way down to the local circuits – the better the treatment and the fewer the side effects.”

Alice Stamatakis-lab
Alice Stamatakis
The Future:

“Well, I hope to graduate in December of this year because I have a postdoctoral fellowship lined up with Rob Malenka’s lab at Stanford for January 2015. It’s a perfect fit because he uses patch clamp electrophysiology to record the electrical activity of neurons to study how the synapses of neurons change over time in response to different stimuli, such as drugs or even learning. Also, my fiancé will be joining a different lab at Stanford. So, that worked out.”

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