Vanderbilt University announced today the addition of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research to the cadre of research centers supported by Discovery Vanderbilt. Discovery Vanderbilt is an initiative of the Office of the Provost and one of three pathways in the university’s Dare to Grow campaign, established to support and extend the resources underpinning Vanderbilt’s most innovative research and education.
VCAR, led by Erin Calipari, an associate professor of pharmacology who was previously associate director, will continue to advance understanding of the intricate mechanisms underlying the development of addiction and substance use disorder in the brain, provide community outreach to destigmatize addiction and develop new pharmaceutical strategies to treat addiction.
“This addition underscores our dedication to transformative research and solving some of our nation’s most pressing challenges, including the devastating costs of substance abuse and addiction,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs C. Cybele Raver said. “Under Professor Calipari’s leadership, VCAR will address those pressing scientific questions while also destigmatizing addiction through vital partnerships with community leaders and organizations.”
In addition to fundamental research in systems neuroscience, VCAR research is focused on addiction to alcohol, opioids and stimulants. Scientists also study addiction to food and general disorders of motivation. The goal of VCAR’s frontier research is to understand how the brain controls behavior to illuminate how it changes with addiction. This knowledge has the potential to bring society one step closer to treating and curing addiction.
Tennessee is ranked third in the nation for prescription drug abuse across demographics. In 2021, there were 3,038 opioid overdose deaths in Tennessee, accounting for 80 percent of all drug overdose deaths in the state. Across the nation, the pandemic coincided with an increase in substance use and death rates due to substances. In 2021, there were more than 106,600 deaths due to drug overdose in the U.S. This was the highest number of deaths due to overdose on record and 51 percent higher than pre-pandemic totals. In 2022, more than 48.5 million people aged 12 or older had substance use disorder. This includes 29.5 million with alcohol use disorder, 27.2 million with drug use disorder and 8 million people who had both.
“Professor Calipari and her colleagues’ research is addressing one of the most difficult challenges of our time,” said Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. “Leveraging Vanderbilt’s culture of radical collaboration, we can elevate VCAR’s meaningful and impactful work to help people suffering from addiction across Tennessee, and throughout the U.S.”
An event to celebrate the center’s launch will take place in early 2024.
“We are at a critical point when it comes to substance use disorder and addiction in the U.S., and still there are no FDA-approved treatments for some classes of SUD—including stimulant use disorder,” Calipari said. “The Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research aims to change this paradigm by leveraging our cutting-edge research with interdisciplinary collaboration. Further, training VCAR’s outstanding biomedical scholars is creating a new generation of investigators who will understand addiction as a disorder of the brain as they pursue their research in the years to come.”
VCAR Featured Research
Brain control of motivation and reward
- Exploring how the brain fundamentally learns and responds to motivation, to contrast with drug-induced dysfunction. The comparison offers clues to how the brains of people suffering from substance use disorder work.
- Looking at how the neural circuits controlling hunger and motivate eating, which are closely linked to those that control addiction, develop. This work will shed light onto how semaglutides—drugs sold under the brand names Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus—reduce food and drug cravings.
Stimulant use disorder
- Identifying how repeated use of stimulants—cocaine, nicotine and methamphetamine—change the brain and the body. This can shed light on new parts of the brain that can be targeted for novel treatments.
Alcohol use disorder
- Using computational tools and artificial intelligence approaches to define new targets and refining existing targets in the treatment of alcohol use disorder.
- Exploring how opioids work within the body and how medication can provide pain relief without causing addiction.
Cutting-edge technical approaches
- Applying cutting-edge approaches to seeing the complexity of the brain and how it works.
“Erin Calipari’s research combines deep insights with a clear commitment to untangling the complexities of addiction for more effective therapies. Vanderbilt University’s commitment to the Center for Addiction Research reinforces an essential institutional belief: that unraveling the complexities of addiction requires a steadfast commitment to basic science,” said John Kuriyan, dean of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences. “By delving into the core mechanisms that underlie addictive behaviors, we aim to unlock transformative insights that pave the way for innovative, effective treatments—ultimately offering hope and healing to those affected by addiction.”
About Erin Calipari
Erin Calipari earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in 2013. There, she studied how self-administered drugs altered dopaminergic function to drive addictive behaviors. She then went on to complete her postdoctoral training at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she used circuit probing techniques to understand the temporally specific neural signals that underlie motivation and reward learning. She is an associate professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences. Calipari’s current research is to understand how drug use changes circuits in the brain the control motivation to give rise to the maladaptive behaviors associated with substance use disorders.
Research centers such as this are the impetus behind Vanderbilt’s Dare to Grow campaign—a $3.2 billion comprehensive campaign, the most ambitious in university history. By investing in research, discovery and creative expression, visionary philanthropists will catalyze vital work across our labs, archives and studios. Learn more at vu.edu/daretogrow.