Article by Ann Manser December 21, 2017
During doctoral student Nicholas Heroux’s first three years in the University of Delaware’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, he focused his research on brain development, specifically studying the regions known as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus and their role in learning and memory.
Now, with the support of a predoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he’ll be investigating how neonatal alcohol exposure disrupts the development of these two brain areas. His research uses a rat model of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) — a leading, and preventable, cause of intellectual disability in humans.
Heroux is conducting his work primarily with his graduate adviser, Prof. Mark Stanton, an accomplished FASD researcher and developmental behavioral neuroscientist.
The highly competitive three-year grant, awarded by the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and totaling $132,132, will allow Heroux to continue his doctoral studies as a research assistant.
For Heroux, exploring the ways in which a fetus’s exposure to alcohol affects brain development is a critical example of how basic science can be applied to societal problems.
“Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a serious problem, not just in the United States but around the world,” Heroux said. “It’s completely preventable, but there are various reasons why a pregnant woman might not abstain from drinking alcohol—if she’s an alcoholic, for example, or she doesn’t know the risk—so the disorder remains widespread.”
Fetal alcohol exposure severely disrupts the function of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, causing what Heroux called “pervasive cognitive impairments across various forms of learning and memory.” But although much research has been conducted on FASD, he said, the precise mechanisms by which alcohol impairs cognition are not well understood.
In humans, the prefrontal cortex is essential in such tasks as complex planning, decision making, self-control and working to achieve goals—tasks often termed “executive function.” The hippocampus plays an important role in short-term and long-term memory. These functions are impaired in human FASD.
“Animal model research on neural and behavioral disruption involving the hippocampus is extensive,” Heroux said. “But animal models of FASD examining disrupted function in the prefrontal cortex are scarce. That’s why we’re doing this research.”
Understanding the way each region of the brain functions is important, he said, but so is understanding how the regions communicate with each other. In addition to looking at how brain regions influence each other within these circuits, his research will study gene expression in the brain and investigate whether fetal exposure to alcohol leads to impaired regional gene expression.
The final stage of his project will look at the possibility of reversing the alcohol-caused impairments.
Although Heroux says the idea of a drug that would completely reverse FASD is still in the realm of science fiction, eventually scientists could test possible treatments for the disorder that arise from well-controlled research initiatives.
“Right now, I’m trying to get a better model for understanding FASD,” he said. “My goal is to do basic science, to expand our understanding of scientific questions, and then look at ways to apply that understanding to human public health problems.”