Marquette researchers receive $1.9 million grant to study neuroscience of addiction, depression

April 16, 2019

MILWAUKEE — Drs. Robert Wheeler and John Mantsch, faculty researchers in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the College of Health Sciences at Marquette University, received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will fund neuroscientific research into psychiatric disorders such as addiction and depression.

Their project, entitled “Aversion signals in the reward system,” will examine how unpleasant experiences negatively impact people with underlying psychiatric disorders, with the goal of developing innovative behavioral and pharmacological therapies aimed at managing them.

"Aversive life experiences are unavoidable and can vary widely, from very highly stressful events to more mildly negative experiences," said Wheeler, an associate professor of biomedical sciences. "However, each of these experiences is represented by a neural aversion signal in the brain. In someone struggling with an underlying disorder like addiction, these signals can lead to relapse, and persistent aversive signals can also contribute to diseases like depression." 

The research team has identified the presence of aversion signals in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain also known for processing pleasurable stimuli. Aversion signals in the nucleus accumbens are represented by a reduced concentration of a stress-sensitive neurotransmitter called dopamine. The researchers believe that, in people with underlying disorders, the dopamine response to stressful events triggers addiction and other harmful behaviors. 

"Our purpose is to characterize how these signals are represented and how they change behavior," said Mantsch, chair and professor of biomedical sciences. “We believe that decoding aversion signals will give us critical insight into both a fundamental aspect of the human condition and a range of stress-sensitive psychiatric disorders." 

"This is a highly collaborative research team that also includes the efforts of a third biomedical sciences faculty member, Dr. Matthew Hearing, in addition to Drs. Mantsch and Wheeler. It showcases the powerful impact of individual researchers contributing a unique expertise to a multidisciplinary neuroscience project," said Dr. William E. Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences and director of the Integrative Neuroscience Research Center. "Given the heavy competition for NIH funding, this award is a testament to the power of collaborative research among neuroscientists in Marquette’s College of Health Sciences."

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Jesse Lee

Jesse is a senior communication specialist for the College of Health Sciences in the Office of Marketing and Communication. Contact Jesse at (414) 288-4984 or