Skip to Content
Report an accessibility problem
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
Select Page

New tool navigates brain’s addiction mechanism

Convergence magazine > New tool navigates brain’s addiction mechanism

Barbara Smith is developing a new tool to help researchers target specific cells to better understand how addiction impacts cellular mechanisms in the brain

Opioid addiction is a widespread and complex issue, both in society and in the brain.

Barbara Smith, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is helping the research community better understand how addiction affects the brain at the cellular level to better combat this debilitating condition.

With support from a 2020 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award, Smith and her research team are pioneering a new tool to identify and target specific brain cells in a way that has not been possible until now.

“My laboratory is focused on establishing an accurate and scalable technology to better understand fundamental ways the brain communicates across widespread neurocircuitry,” Smith says. “These tools are being developed to explore the underlying mechanisms of opioid addiction and other neurological disorders and diseases.”

Barbara Smith works in her lab with a colleague

Arizona State University Assistant Professor Barbara Smith and biomedical engineering doctoral student Christopher Miranda work with a laser in the Smith Imaging Lab. Smith’s National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award supports her research team’s development of a first-of-its-kind tool to help researchers target specific brain cells to better understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying addiction. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Part of what makes the brain amazing is its neuroplasticity, or its ability to change over the course of our lives. These changes can be positive, such as when abilities are remapped after an area of the brain is damaged by a debilitating event like a stroke.

But neuroplasticity can also be negative. In the case of addiction, the mesolimbic dopamine system — the brain’s reward system — can be reprogrammed in a way that keeps a person dependent on drugs such as opioids.

A certain type of neuron (brain cell) in the mesolimbic dopamine system plays a key role in addiction and programming the brain to view opioid use as rewarding. To find ways to address this, it is necessary to understand the function of those cells, how addiction makes changes in them and how the cells are communicating with other cells in a circuit around different areas of the brain.

Smith and her team are pioneering the development of a first-of-its-kind targeting tool called FLuoro-Acoustic Multipipette Electrodes, or FLAME. The tool improves upon the limitations of existing techniques by incorporating light with acoustics to navigate to specific cell types and get a high-resolution view of what’s happening in those cells, even when they are in deeper regions of the brain.

 

“Knowledge gained from FLAME…can open the door to an understanding of the actual workings of deep-brain neurons as they impact addiction, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease and pain.”
– Barbara Smith​

 

Barbara Smith works in her lab with a colleague

 

“Knowledge gained from FLAME…can open the door to an understanding of the actual workings of deep-brain neurons as they impact addiction, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease and pain.”
– Barbara Smith​

 

FLAME integrates a new targeting mechanism into existing micropipette electrodes — tiny glass tubes that have a tip the fraction of the size of a cell. The technology integrates photoacoustics (sound generated by light) and fluorescence (indicators that contrast targets from their surroundings) to navigate toward a specific cell of interest. Once the cell of interest is identified, FLAME can record its electrical activity at a high resolution.

By efficiently targeting cells of interest and recording their activity, FLAME will help researchers to better understand how addiction affects the brain at a cellular level. This enhanced understanding is an important step to developing preventative medicine and effective treatments for opioid addiction in the future.

“Knowledge gained from FLAME will support scientists to make future discoveries within currently unknown areas of neuroscience,” Smith says. “It can open the door to an understanding of the actual workings of deep-brain neurons as they impact addiction, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease and pain.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 727-1958 | monique.clement@asu.edu