When Elizabeth A Heller, PhD, says she does addiction research, people may have misconceptions about her area of expertise. “People may think addiction research is just about behavior,” said Heller, an assistant professor of pharmacology and director of a neuroepigenetics lab.
Instead, Heller’s work and the work of his 10-person lab focus on the molecular mechanisms of the brain, aiming to uncover the chronic changes that can occur and continue to occur in the brain long after the end of life. exposure to addictive substances like cocaine.
Heller’s dedication to basic science is matched only by his commitment to his colleagues, his students, and those who may one day benefit from the breakthroughs made in his lab. Below, she talks about finding a love for neurology, her unique research, and running a neuroscience lab throughout the pandemic.
Briefly describe your background and how you came to Penn.
I studied at the University of Pennsylvania for an undergraduate degree in the early 2000s before going to Rockefeller University for a PhD in molecular biology. I was drawn to Penn because not only was it my alma mater, but it was also home to innovative and challenging neuroscience and epigenetics research and leading scientists leading discoveries in the field. It was a place that nurtured my love of investigation.
There were professors like one of my mentors, Ted Abel, PhD, a former Penn biology professor and now the chair of neuroscience at the University of Iowa, with whom I had the good fortune to working during my undergraduate studies (we looked at sleep deprivation and memory in mice.) Having experience in research and being part of a laboratory as an undergraduate student was fundamental for me, and I must commend Penn and my mentors for providing this experience. I was convinced that Penn would allow me to pursue breakthroughs with some of the brightest experts. I came back here in 2009 and have continued my professional journey here ever since.
What research are you currently conducting?
My work is divided into a few miscellaneous topics, but it’s all about neuroepigenetics. The genes, which we inherit from our parents and their parents, are not locked in as we thought. They are subject to change due to environmental effects. These effects can cause parts of the code to be enabled or suppressed. Sometimes the changes are very small, like changing a note in a piece of music. Neuroepigenetics deals with gene expression changes caused by the environment in the brain.
Specifically, much of our research in my lab revolves around the role of chromatin – a complex of DNA and proteins in the nucleus of a cell – in neuroepigenetics and the effects of cocaine. It is a drug that is only chemically addictive in a minority of users. But among those who become addicted, the likelihood of someone quitting completely increases if they can abstain from use for a year. It made me and my colleagues think that there is something going on in the brain at the end of abstinence that can help patients recover.
After several studies on mice, we have found that although cocaine dissipates fairly quickly in the body, changes in the brain continue to occur long after use is stopped. It triggers a chronic reaction. The hope is that, if we can identify the mechanisms behind the changes taking place before the brain goes into recovery, then pharmacologists and scientists could potentially develop a treatment to trigger brain recovery earlier or stop the changes. going on in the brain.
What inspired you to do the research you do?
I was genuinely inspired by all the early experiences I had in the lab, like those I had as an undergraduate at Penn, and the researchers who gave me the opportunity to question and explore. I feel that I owe this same support to the young scientists with whom I work today.
Additionally, those with substance use disorders continue to be stigmatized. Drugs affect people in various ways. And while it’s clear that drugs like cocaine are harmful, that fact shouldn’t stop scientists from looking for the scientific mechanisms behind them. Better understanding at the basic scientific level could one day enable more people to overcome their addiction and could lead to treatments for a myriad of other neurological conditions. The promise of science and the potential it has to benefit humanity continues to inspire me.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist?
The pandemic. During the pandemic, I had a newborn and a toddler. I managed maternity and ran a lab, trying to advance science and compete for funds to support the lab and all whose livelihoods depended on it. Fortunately, Penn’s support has also helped us through the difficult times of the pandemic.
It’s funny. I was the working woman you hear on the news whose life is “terrible”, balancing work and family life, and who should be incredibly stressed. It was difficult and I was stressed. But dealing with young children who had no idea what was going on was actually really rejuvenating. There was only joy in these little humans completely separated from the outside world.
I am also an adult who has developed resilience simply by living my life. This is not the case for some of our young students and researchers. I feel the most for those in our lab and my classes who haven’t had the life experiences necessary to deal with the stress the pandemic has brought. Some are exhausted and it seems like they are just starting to process everything. Department heads, professors and mentors owe it to this new generation of researchers to do what we can to listen to them and try to offer them the support that can help them move forward. I think we’re just starting to have these conversations, but they’re important.