5 Questions With…

David Lovinger, Ph.D. Acting Scientific Director, Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research, and Chief of the Laboratory for Integrative Neuroscience, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

  1. Your neuroscientific research spotlights fundamental biological processes—molecules, cells, and neurocircuits. What led you to this field, and how would you describe the importance of such basic science in helping us to understand alcohol’s effects on health?

    I have cultivated an interest in the neurobiological basis of behavior since my undergraduate days. My work on synaptic plasticity related to learning and memory led me to examine acute alcohol effects on the function of synaptic molecules involved in plasticity. Synaptic plasticity refers to the broad range of changes that occur in the strength of connections between neurons. Intriguing findings stimulated me to expand this research program to examine chronic alcohol effects on synaptic function and assess how these synaptic changes alter learning, memory, and alcohol-related behaviors involving neural circuits that we were studying in other contexts. With the help of outstanding colleagues at NIAAA and throughout the field, our laboratory is now able to address these questions at the molecular, cellular, circuit, and behavioral levels.

    Basic research in the Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research (DICBR) has always been at the forefront of research on the biomedical effects of alcohol. From the early development of animal models, and through pioneering metabolic studies, DICBR has provided ideas and resources that stimulate research throughout and beyond the alcohol research field. Recent work in neurogenetics, alcohol-induced organ damage, and neuroscience carry on this tradition, including wide adoption of techniques and models developed in DICBR. The increased cross-talk between the basic laboratories and our outstanding clinical research group is now providing candidate therapies to treat the many facets of alcohol use disorder.

  2. Among your recent publications is the intriguingly named paper, “A Circuit-Based Information Approach to Substance Abuse Research.” Can you elaborate on that approach and its importance to the field?

    As neurobiological research has expanded, it is clear that there is much to be learned about neural circuit/systems functions. Past research, including our own, focused on molecules, cells, and single brain regions. At the same time, research in this area is often driven by concepts from experimental psychology with efforts to model human behavior. We propose that these lines of research can be more mutually informative by better understanding circuit function and relationships to behavior, effects of drugs on these circuits, and reduced emphasis on finding which of the many imperfect animal models of human substance use disorders is the “best.”

  3. Scientists rely on access to special technology and often require close collaboration with colleagues. How have you and your fellow investigators at NIAAA been able to adjust to conducting research and working together during the COVID-19 pandemic?

    I need to praise the members of the Laboratory for Integrative Neuroscience (LIN) for their exceptional dedication, organization, and attention to safety during these unusually difficult times. From the beginning of the pandemic, the resourceful members of LIN adopted web-meeting and team chat platforms to facilitate communication and maintain morale. During the full shutdown and maximum telework, we all worked on tasks achievable from home, such as analyzing data and writing papers. With the limited return to work, laboratory members organized shifts, allowing all projects to move forward while still meeting physical distancing requirements. The result was outstanding productivity and publications, not to mention that two postdocs obtained tenure-track positions, all while preventing a COVID-19 outbreak among the team members.

  4. As a laboratory chief, you’ve made it a priority to mentor the next wave of young investigators. In what ways do you find NIAAA’s intramural program to be especially suited to serve as a training ground for alcohol researchers of the future?

    Good mentoring ensures scientific progress, paving the way for future discovery. Thus, it is one of the most important aspects of a scientist’s career. I have been extremely fortunate to work with exceptional young scientists at the postbaccalaureate, graduate, postdoctoral, and early faculty levels. One thing I have learned is that mentoring is a bi-directional interaction. I learn so much from young scientists and hopefully can give back valuable training and career advice in return. The intramural program has the advantage of allowing a great deal of independence in choice of research topics, combined with outstanding resources.

  5. Can you share some of your favorite things to do when you’re away from your laboratory?

    When I’m not at work, I love to escape. Pre- (and, I hope, post-) pandemic, this included travel to new and exciting places like Costa Rica. To me, there is nothing more enriching than seeing a new city or hiking in a beautiful natural setting where I can look for new plants and animals—especially birds, thanks to advice from my colleagues. I also can’t resist swimming in any new pool, lake, sea, or ocean when the weather permits. When I can’t escape physically, I dive into a good novel or movie, with science fiction being one of my favorite genres.