NIAAA's Heilig Earns Hazelden's 2008 Dan Anderson Research Award

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Markus Heilig, M.D., Ph.D., clinical director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and chief of the NIAAA Laboratory of Clinical and Translational Studies, has earned the 2008 Dan Anderson Research Award for his identification of a novel neurotransmitter system involved in craving for alcohol. Sponsored by the Butler Center for Research at Hazelden http://www.hazelden.org/research the award honors a single published article by a researcher who has advanced the scientific knowledge of addiction recovery.

On behalf of the whole team, I am obviously very pleased and honored.

Markus Heilig, M.D., Ph.D., clinical director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and chief of the NIAAA Laboratory of Clinical and Translational Studies, has earned the 2008 Dan Anderson Research Award for his identification of a novel neurotransmitter system involved in craving for alcohol. Sponsored by the Butler Center for Research at Hazelden http://www.hazelden.org/research, the award honors a single published article by a researcher who has advanced the scientific knowledge of addiction recovery.

Heilig earned the award for his study, "Neurokinin 1 receptor antagonism as a possible therapy for alcoholism," published in a 2008 issue of Science (Vol. 319, pages 1536-1539). The study identified a specific brain receptor, the neurokinin 1 receptor (NK1R), involved in craving and stress responses. Medication targeting this receptor blocked craving for alcohol and improved overall well-being among a group of recently detoxified individuals with alcohol dependence.

"Bringing the advances of modern neuroscience to clinical application, for the benefit of patients with addictive disorders, is the dream all of us have here," said Heilig, who teamed with staff in the Laboratory of Clinical and Translational Studies to conduct the study. "On behalf of the whole team, I am obviously very pleased and honored."

In preclinical studies, Heilig and colleagues discovered that the NK1R receptor was involved in alcohol preference and consumption in mice. In the recent experimental study with humans, Heilig and his team randomized recently detoxified inpatients with alcohol dependence to receive either an NK1R antagonist medication or placebo. Those receiving the NK1R-targeting medication had substantially reduced craving for alcohol and significantly greater overall improvement in functioning compared to those receiving the placebo. The results held true even when participants were subjected to an alcohol cue challenge. In addition to positively impacting subjective measures of craving, the NK1R antagonist also reduced cortisol levels, a chemical related to stress responses.

Following these tests, Heilig and colleagues further examined brain responses when participants were exposed to images of alcoholic beverages. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the team found that the NK1R antagonist resulted in substantially reduced brain activation in regions associated with negative emotional responses compared to those taking the placebo.

"These findings are highly significant for the field because they represent the identification of a previously unrecognized system involved in mediating alcohol cravings in response to relapse triggering stimuli," wrote George Kunos, M.D., Ph.D., the scientific director at NIAAA who nominated Heilig for the award.

"Our Scientific Panel of Advisors described Heilig's work as a 'perfect example of translational research,'" said Valerie Slaymaker, Ph.D., executive director of the Butler Center for Research at Hazelden. "His study draws much needed attention to the role of craving and stress in the treatment of alcoholism. Hazelden's own research has demonstrated the impact of ongoing craving for alcohol on outcomes among our patients. We have increased our efforts to utilize medications that target craving as a result."

Heilig will accept the award and a $2,000 honorarium in May at the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) annual conference. The award is named for the late Dan Anderson, Ph.D., the former president of Hazelden and one of the major architects of the Minnesota Model, the interdisciplinary approach to addiction treatment that has been replicated worldwide.

Heilig's research was selected as the best from among several outstanding candidates by the Scientific Panel of the Butler Center for Research. The panel includes Slaymaker; Carlton Erickson, Ph.D., University of Texas-Austin; Lee Ann Kaskutas, Dr.PH, Alcohol Research Group, Emeryville, Calif.; James McKay, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania; Jon Morgenstern, Ph.D., National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, New York; and Constance Weisner, Ph.D., University of California-San Francisco.

Past award winners include William Fals-Stewart, Ph.D., University of Rochester, New York; Rudolph Moos, Ph.D., Department of Veterans Affairs, Palo Alto, Calif.; Reid K. Hester, Ph.D., of Behavior Therapy Associates in Albuquerque; Stephanie O'Malley, Ph.D., Yale University School of Medicine; Howard A. Liddle, Ed.D., University of Miami; Robert J. Meyers, Ph.D., University of New Mexico; Bankole Johnson, M.D., University of Texas Health Science Center; Henri Begleiter, Ph.D., State University of New York; Richard Longabaugh, Ed.D., Brown University; Dace Svikis, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University; Michael Fiore, M.D., University of Wisconsin; and Stephen T. Higgins, Ph.D., University of Vermont.

Recognizing outstanding research and conducting research of its own are the primary objectives of the Butler Center for Research, the research arm of Hazelden.

Hazelden Foundation, http://www.hazelden.org founded in 1949, is a national nonprofit organization that helps people reclaim their lives from the disease of addiction. With nearly 60 years of knowledge and experience, Hazelden offers a comprehensive approach to addiction that addresses the full range of patient, family, and professional needs, including treatment and continuing care for youth and adults, research, higher learning, public education and advocacy, and publishing. For more information please contact Christine Anderson at canderson (at) hazelden.org or 612-659-8727.

Heilig may be reached for interviews by contacting the NIAAA Press Office at 301-443-0595 or niaaapressoffice (at) mail.nih.gov.

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