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The UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies lab of Zoe McElligott, PhD, will investigate how opioid withdrawal changes neurons in particular parts of the brain, with the goals of understanding the basic biology of opioid use disorder and helping people affected by the condition.

Zoe McElligott, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Psychiatry and the UNC Department of Pharmacology, received a $2-million dollar grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to investigate synaptic plasticity of neurons in opioid use disorder.

A member of the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, McElligott will lead research to uncover how opioid withdrawal alters noradrenergic neurons, which form systems of neural connections affecting large areas of the brain involved in alertness, arousal, and readiness for action. Specifically, her team will study how these neurons are changed by and how they in turn control the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), a part of the brain altered by opioid withdrawal.

Exposure and withdrawal to drugs of abuse can cause changes in critical brain regions that are important for mediating behaviors related to substance abuse, such as negative emotions, poor sleep, and anxiety. Using circuit-based approaches with electrophysiological, electrochemical, and behavioral techniques, the McElligott lab will investigate how multiple elements within the noradrenergic neurons and the BNST output neurons are shaped by opioid withdrawal experience.

Additionally, in collaboration with the lab of Graham Diering, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Cell Biology and Physiology and member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, this NIH funding will examine how critical elements of these brain circuits regulate opioid-induced sleep dysregulation.

Preliminary resources supporting this grant were obtained via seed funding from the Foundation of Hope.