Annette Barraza, The Paisano

Annette Barraza, The Paisano

Annette Barraza, The Paisano

The National Institutes of Health recently granted UTSA associate professor of neuroscience, Dr. Carlos Paladini, $1.8 million for research on the role of dopamine in mental disorders.

Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that serves as a reward system; it controls movement, emotional response, pleasure and motivation. Many mental disorders are directly related to the amounts of dopamine in the brain.

For example, Parkinson’s disease is caused by the progressive depletion of the dopamine chemical, which in turn causes uncontrollable body tremors for its sufferers. 

The grant will allow Dr. Paladini to research new treatments and cures for such dopamine-related diseases such as Parkinson’s, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, clinical depression and drug addiction. The research will be conducted by a team of top-tier scientists from the UTSA Neurosciences Institute.

“Our research is all pre-clinical studies, meaning that we use animal models,” says Paladini. “Essentially, the funds for this grant go towards supplies and equipment to conduct the experiments and for the teams who come in and attack the problems.”

Paladini’s research will serve as a continuation of previous research by other scientists, but with a different approach. “Our strategy is a little bit different,” said Paladini, “We’re not looking at the particular process of any single disease. What we want to know instead is how does the reward system part of the brain work normally?   

Then we will be better able to recognize what is wrong in any one of these diseases.” In addition to studying dopamine rates in the average brain, Paladini will also research why people develop dopamine-related illnesses.

“Another thing we want to know is, why do people have clinical depression to begin with? Why do they have Parkinson’s disease? Why are the cells dying to begin with? It is just a different angle of attack on these diseases.”

Traditional brain research focused more on the stages and progressions of mental health issues, while Dr. Paladini believes that a new approach is necessary for the future of neuroscience. “It’s clear that the old way of doing things is kind of stalled. It’s clear that we need a different strategy.”

The field of neuroscience is still a relatively new discipline. Neuroscience as a field has only existed for about 50 years and much more progress is needed to develop new treatments for brain disorders.

“The treatments for almost all of these diseases are still essentially 1950’s and 1960’s technology,” stated Paladini. “For depression, Prozac was a huge success. For Parkinson’s disease, we give patients either another drug that is a precursor for dopamine or they have surgery in which an electrical wire is inserted in their brains called “deep brain stimulation.”

These also were pretty much developed in the 1950s and 60s.”

Although there is clear evidence that dopamine plays a vital role in the diseases of the reward system, Dr. Paladini wants his research to also focus on the role of astrocytes. 

Astrocytes are messenger cells within the brain that gather sensory information to notify dopamine cells that something stimulating is about to occur.

“What we have been finding is that these astrocytes actually do impact the information processing in the brain, and they can actually control when dopamine is released in the brain.”

Despite astrocytes’ important role, they have been often overlooked in the quest to cure and treat dopamine-related illnesses.

“It’s clear that dopamine cells are critical,” explained Paladini. “For example, every single drug of abuse that is addictive is addictive because of its affect of dopamine cells, but perhaps astrocytes have been downplayed because of the critical role that dopamine has.”

Dr. Paladini has often reflected on the nuance of the neuroscience field. He has expressed that there is still a great need for brain research in order to help those with mental health issues. “The brain is still a mystery,” he said, “As we unlock the secrets of the brain, it will become clearer how and why these mental health issues happen and how these physical changes occur in our brains. With more information, better understanding will come.” Dr. Paladini and his team will account for further progression towards new treatments and possible cures for mental health issues that affect millions of people.

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