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IUPUI Behavioral Neuroscientist Receives International Award for Alcoholism Research

Release Date: 
May 9 2011

Stephen L. Boehm II, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has been named the 2011 Young Scientist of the Year by the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society. The award will be presented May 13 at the society’s annual meeting in Rome, Italy.

Stephen L. Boehm II, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at IUPUIStephen L. Boehm II, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at IUPUI

Boehm, a behavioral neuroscientist, is being honored for his ongoing study of the impact of binge alcohol consumption on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neural circuits in the brain. The organization also cited Boehm’s mentorship of students.

“Human alcohol abuse and dependence is associated with binge drinking, a dangerous mode of alcohol intake. We are interested in how binge drinking changes normal brain function. We expect to see changes in the GABA system at the cellular level that affects brain function. Understanding how the GABA system interacts with alcohol and is changed by repeated binge consumption is a critical step to the development of new treatments. The knowledge we are gaining in our lab is an early step on what we hope is the path to drug therapy which may be useful in treating alcohol abuse and dependence,” said Boehm.

In his research, Boehm studies the initial and long-term effects of repeated binge drinking episodes in mice who seek alcohol, consuming within two hours a mixture of alcohol and tap water that raises their blood alcohol level above the human equivalent of .08. At .08 blood alcohol level, concentration and judgment are impaired in humans and all 50 states prohibit operation of a motor vehicle.

In mice as in humans, alcohol passes quickly into the blood stream and is transported to the brain where it affects GABA, an important neurotransmitter that inhibits mental activity. Boehm is investigating the interaction of alcohol and GABA, specifically how the sensitivity of GABA receptors to alcohol influences reaction to alcohol. He is also studying GABA receptor changes that occur over repeated binge drinking episodes.

At the IBANGS meeting in Rome, Boehm will present details of an arm of his study that focuses on alcoholic consumption by female mice. Initial findings indicate that hormonal status appears to modify the role of GABA receptors in binge alcohol consumption. Brain response to alcohol may vary in females depending on when in the month it is consumed. School of Science doctoral candidate Laverne Melón conducted many of the experiments related to this work.

Two other School of Science students, doctoral candidates Eileen Moore and David Linsenbardt, will accompany Boehm to Rome where they will present findings on their research in the Boehm lab. Moore’s work focuses on the influence of genetics on adolescent alcohol sensitivity and how it differs from adult sensitivity in mice. Linsenbardt is studying the role of genetic factors in the behavior and brain adaptation to repeated alcohol exposure in mice.

Mentoring is a high priority for Boehm, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Four graduate students work in his lab as do six undergraduates.

“The one-on-one nature of mentoring engages students in the scientific enterprise. On the graduate level you instruct students in experiment design, communication of research findings and critical thinking skills so that they ultimately become colleagues. Mentoring undergraduates is a real extension of classroom teaching, especially because this is a unique opportunity to get students interested in science,” said Boehm who teaches both undergraduates and graduate courses in the School of Science.

In addition to behavioral neuroscience, Boehm’s areas of expertise include behavioral genetics, molecular genetics, pharmacology, and developmental research. He has published 31 peer-reviewed papers. His research is supported by a $1.25 million grant, awarded in 2009, by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Binge alcohol consumption has criminal, social and health implications. Current treatment approaches are not great. Our hope is that understanding how GABA interacts and changes with repeated alcohol consumption will help us develop therapeutic strategies that target GABA receptors, ultimately enabling us to treat alcohol abuse and dependence in humans,” said Boehm.

 The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The School is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana's effort to expand and diversify its economy.