Teen optogenetics project takes top NIDA Addiction Science Award

A project that maps dopamine circuits in the prefrontal cortex using optogenetics was given top honors in this year's annual Addiction Science Awards at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a large science competition for high school students.

The first-place award went to John Edward Solder, 18, a senior at Staples High School (Westport, CT), for his project, Optogenetic Interrogation of Prefrontal Cortex Dopamine D1 Receptor-Containing Neurons as a Technique to Restore Timing: A Novel Approach to Treat Prefrontal Disorders. Solder was able to specifically control behavioral timing in mice that were genetically modified to activate dopamine neurons in the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in higher order functions such as impulsivity and self-control, in response to a light stimulus. His research, which provides another example of the power of optogenetics (a technique that activates specific neurons just by shining light onto them) to modify neural activity in discrete brain areas at will, brings us one step closer to the development of novel therapies for a wide range of psychiatric disorders. He plans to attend Yale University (New Haven, CT) in the fall.

 "This young scientist used optogenetics to directly activate dopamine neurons in the prefrontal cortex to influence behavior in the mouse, providing a proof of principle for an approach that could be used one day to restore disease-impaired functions in the brain," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "His work highlights the versatility of the optogenetic technique for mapping out the circuits that underlie discrete behaviors and that are disrupted in brain disorders that involve the prefrontal cortex, including Parkinson's disease, addiction, and schizophrenia. His impressive command of the principles, mechanics, and implications of this promising technology should enable Mr. Solder to make significant and long-lasting contributions to the field of neuroscience."

The awards were presented by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, MD), and Friends of NIDA, a coalition that supports NIDA's mission. The Intel ISEF Addiction Science Awards were presented at a ceremony on May 17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (Pittsburgh, PA).

This year, about 1,500 students from 70 countries participated in the Intel ISEF competition, coordinated by the Society for Science and the Public. The nonprofit organization Society for Science and the Public partners with Intel and other corporate, academic, government, and science-focused sponsors to provide support and awards each year. Winners receive cash awards provided by Friends of NIDA, with a $2,500 scholarship for the first-place honoree.

The second- and third-place awards, as well as an honorable mention, went to:

Benjamin Jake Kornick, 17, of Roslyn High School (Roslyn Heights, NY), for his project OMG: Look Who Joined Facebook! The Relationship between Parenting and Adolescent Risk Behaviors;

L. Elisabeth Burton, 16, of Rio Rancho High School (Rio Rancho, NM), for her study of body image in both boys and girls, and how it affects their perceptions and health behaviors, which she titled A Big Fat Deal, Phase III: Attributions of Body Talk, Risk Assessments of Steroid/Dietary Supplement Use, Perceptions of Media Images, and Self-Esteem; and

Zarin Ibnat Rahman, a sophomore at Brookings High School (Brookings, SD), for her project, Boosting the ADHD Brain: Effects of Gum Chewing and Caffeine on Cognition and Memory in Adolescents with ADHD.

For more information, please visit http://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/public-education-projects/nida-science-fair-award-addiction-science.

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