Newswise — Dara Ghahremani and Edythe London, faculty in the UCLA Health Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, have been selected to join a coalition of experts from international universities to research new methods to diagnose, treat and prevent addiction disorders.  

Ghahremani and London, who are also a part of The Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, will be co-principal investigators in the Untangling Addiction program launched this year by the nonprofit health research organization Wellcome Leap. The three-year, $50 million project includes 13 other partnering universities and organizations and is aimed at developing new ways to quantify addiction risk and progression through biomarkers. 

The UCLA team will conduct the first large-scale probe of a nucleus in the brain known as the habenula — a region associated with the negative states experienced during withdrawal. The habenula has had strong links to addiction in animal studies but has not been adequately studied in humans. The team will assess MRI data from thousands of individuals with problematic alcohol use to determine if similar relationships are observed in humans. 

“If we do find those links, the habenula could be an important therapeutic neural target,” Ghahremani said. “For example, a relatively novel noninvasive brain stimulation technique, called low-intensity focused ultrasound, may be used to temporarily alter habenula function during periods of alcohol withdrawal to reduce symptoms and thereby reduce vulnerability to continued drug use.”