“We want to see how these epigenetic alterations interact with the heroin experience and if there are sex differences in these processes,” says Stephen Mahler, associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, lead principal investigator of a National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded project involving UCI faculty from multiple disciplines.

Irvine, Calif., July 14, 2022 – The role of gene alterations resulting from childhood adversity in adults addicted to heroin and a search for blood tests to predict addiction vulnerability are part of sweeping research that scientists are launching at the University of California, Irvine.

The nearly $3.5 million five-year project to understand the opioid crisis is a collaboration of the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Medicine, as well as the Irvine Center for Addiction Neuroscience. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is funding the work through an initiative to encourage research innovation.

Researchers will examine how early-life adversity influences epigenetics, or experience-induced changes in gene expression, and how they affect the likelihood of adult addiction.

“We want to see how these epigenetic alterations interact with the heroin experience and if there are sex differences in these processes,” said lead principal investigator Stephen Mahler, associate professor  of neurobiology & behavior and a fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

“For example, what happens upon using opioid drugs might be different between people who had scarcity of resources or chaotic environments as children and those who didn’t,” Mahler said. “This could account for why some people become addicted to these drugs, while others don’t.”

He noted that earlier research shows opioid-addicted women were more likely than men to have experienced stressful circumstances as children, such as those resulting from growing up amid early-life adversity.

Examining the blood’s capacity for revealing the propensity for addiction and other mental disorders is also part of the study. This work centers on extracellular vesicles, which are cell-produced droplets containing proteins and microRNAs. Researchers will compare these vesicles in blood samples and cerebral spinal fluid of rodents to learn if those in the blood hold clues about an individual’s risk of addiction or other mental disorders. If so, it could mean blood screening can provide information about the brain that helps prevent and treat addiction and related conditions.

“Gaining a better understanding of an individual’s epigenetics and brain activity opens up powerful new possibilities,” said Mahler. “As an example, if someone suffers a broken leg and it is determined they are susceptible to addiction, they can be given an alternative treatment for pain. For people already dependent on opioids, we may be able to develop precise treatments that target the genetic activity causing the addiction.”

Numerous other inquiries will also take place as part of the research project. Serving as principal investigators are Christie Fowler, associate professor of neurobiology & behavior and fellow, CNLM; Vivek Swarup, assistant professor of neurobiology & behavior; and Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, distinguished professor of pediatrics, anatomy & neurobiology and neurology, Danette Shepard Professor of Neurological Sciences, and fellow, CNLM. Marcelo Wood, professor of neurobiology & behavior and fellow, CNLM, is co-investigator.

Nearly 50,000 people nationwide died from opioid-related overdoses in 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It calls opioid misuse and addiction “a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”

About UCI’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The School of Biological Sciences and School of Medicine play a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-biological-sciences/ and https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/uci-school-of-medicine/.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The campus has produced five Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 224 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $7 billion annually to the local economy and $8 billion statewide. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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