When Elizabeth A. Heller says she researches drug addiction, people may have misconceptions about her area of expertise. “People may think addiction research is only about behavior,” says Heller, an assistant professor of pharmacology and the head of a laboratory of neuroepigenetics.
Instead, Heller’s work and the work of her 10-person lab is focused on molecular brain mechanisms, aiming to uncover chronic changes that can happen and keep happening in the brain long after exposure to addictive substances like cocaine ends.
“I was drawn back to Penn because, not only was it my alma mater, but it was the home of innovative and thought-provoking neuroscience and epigenetics research and the principal scientists leading discovery in the field. It was a place that fostered my love of investigation,” she says.
Heller’s field, neuroepigenetics, deals with environmentally caused gene expression changes within the brain.
“Genes, which we inherit from our parents and their parents, aren’t locked like we used to believe. They’re susceptible to change from environmental effects. Much of our research at my lab revolves around the role of chromatin—a complex of DNA and proteins within the nucleus of a cell—in neuroepigenetics and the effects of cocaine. It’s a drug that’s only chemically addictive in a minority of users. But within those who become addicted, the likelihood that someone fully quits goes up if they can refrain from use for a year. That made me and my colleagues think that something happens in the brain at late abstinence that may help patients recover.”
Heller cites her experience as an undergraduate at Penn as her inspiration for both her research and role as a teacher for this generation of students.
“I was sincerely inspired by all the early experiences I had in the lab, like those I had as an undergraduate student at Penn, and the researchers who gave me an opportunity to question and explore. I feel I owe that same support to the young scientists I work with today,” she says.
“Additionally, those who have substance use disorder continue to be stigmatized. Drugs affect people in various ways. And while it’s clear that drugs like cocaine are harmful, that fact should not keep scientists from researching the scientific mechanisms behind it.”
Read more at Penn Medicine News.