Working to solve the puzzle that is drug addiction: ASU neuroscientist Foster Olive promoted to full professor

By

Kimberlee D’Ardenne

Drug addiction is complex, and Arizona State University neuroscientist Foster Olive has spent his career working to unravel why and how the brain becomes addicted to drugs.

The ASU Department of Psychology recently promoted Olive from associate professor to full professor because of his research efforts.

A feel-good piece of the drug addiction puzzle

Olive runs the Addiction Neuroscience Lab at ASU. His interest in drug addiction began when he was in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA, he spent some time working in a lab that studied how morphine affected endorphins in the brain, and he was fascinated by how endorphins might contribute to drug addiction.

“Endorphins do not receive as much attention as other neuromodulatory systems that are involved in drug addiction, like dopamine,” Olive said. “But, they play an important role in addiction and recovery.”

Endorphins are chemicals made by the nervous system that block pain and create good feelings. Exercise and laughter cause endorphins to be released, but opiate drugs like heroin also work on the same neuronal systems.

Olive recently received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how alcohol activates the endorphin system in the brain. This particular NIH grant program was motivated by the finding that naltrexone, an endorphin-blocking drug that is well-known for its capability to reverse opiate overdoses, is also effective at treating alcoholism.

To test how alcohol affects the brain’s endorphin system, Olive and his team use special animals who have endorphin neurons that literally light up, or fluoresce, when the neurons become active. The researchers can measure how the endorphin system responds to alcohol. Currently, they are focusing on an area of the brain called the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a “clearing house” in the brain, and neurons in this area are involved in wide-ranging processes like control of body temperature, hunger, thirst sleep and emotions.

“Once we identify a region or circuit in the brain that is affected by alcohol, we can start to figure out how to dampen the effect of alcohol without interfering with other functions,” Olive said.

A social piece of the addiction puzzle

The Addiction Neuroscience Lab also focuses on how social relationships affect drug addiction.

“Opiate addicts are known to isolate themselves, and strong relationships are known to be protective and helpful for recovery,” Olive said. “Social effects are only partially understood in addiction research but are a very important area.”

Olive and his graduate student Seven Tomek recently published a paper in Addiction Biology that examined how the opiate heroin affected prosocial behavior in an animal model. The study looked at what happened when animals were given a choice between sugar pellets and rescuing a trapped animal or between heroin and rescuing the trapped animal. The researchers found that the animals who received sugar pellets kept rescuing the trapped animals. The animals who received heroin completely stopped rescuing. This study could lead to a possible mechanism for dysfunctional social behavior in opiate addicts or to improved treatments for opiate addiction.

West to east, and back again

Olive’s path to Tempe started in California and went through South Carolina. After earning his doctorate at UCLA, Olive completed two postdoctoral fellowships: one at Stanford University and a second at the University of California, San Francisco. He worked for five years at the Medical University of South Carolina before moving back west. Olive joined the ASU Department of Psychology in 2010.

“Foster Olive is an extremely productive researcher of how drugs of abuse create dependence and addiction; his work is theoretically thoughtful and sophisticated, methodologically innovative, and highly influential in the field. Indeed, he is a leading scholar, nationally and internationally,” said Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor of psychology and department chair. “He is also an excellent, dedicated teacher and mentor, and goes far beyond the call with his service to the discipline, the department and university, and the broader community. The Department of Psychology and ASU are significantly stronger because of Professor Olive.”