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Volume 21, Number 2, September 2010

photo of Fulton Crews, PhD
Dr. Fulton T. Crews
Director, Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies

This Center Line presents a wonderful example of what all the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies faculty want to do: make discoveries that improve health. Biology, physiology, biochemistry and the brain are incredibly complicated and only a few hard working dedicated scientists are able to make important basic science discoveries. Discoveries are hard to make. Even fewer can translate their basic discoveries to human clinical discoveries that in time are translated to improved health and medical care. This issue includes two Center for Alcohol Studies faculty who have done this. I admire their passion to make discoveries that improve human lives and feel blessed to have such wonderful faculty.

The discoveries of Leslie Morrow on neuroactive steroids are exciting, novel and are changing the world. Morrow’s group has developed sensitive methods to measure them and recently discovered details on how they are synthesized and how they contribute to acute sensitivity to alcohol. The acute sensitivity to alcohol is known to be an important predictor of risk for alcohol dependence, e.g. a low sensitivity to alcohol increases risk of alcoholism. Leslie Morrow has shown genetic and environmental factors regulate neuroactive steroids. Almost all mental disorders are associated with alterations in the hypothalamic (brain) – pituitary – adrenal axis (brain-body hormone axis). However, scientists could not figure out if these hormonal changes are due to the stress of disease or actually contributing to the disease. Efforts to measure hormones as diagnostic factors also never worked. Morrow has discovered that neuroactive steroids, hormones never before carefully measured (or known), are key active agents. This breaks open the field and may at last explain how altered body hormones may induce mental dysfunction. Her discoveries are beginning to provide new ways to diagnose mental disease as well as treat mental disease.

Kathy Sulik has created exciting new ways to detect fetal alcohol brain toxicity using neuroimaging. She has advanced her basic studies of alcohol induced facial morphology that identifies fetal alcohol syndrome to a broader level by imaging the brain and following alcohol-induced dysmorphology in brain. This will allow better identification of babies with alcohol insults so we know who needs treatment. Prevention is even better. Sulik has taken her basic discoveries and translated them to education and prevention messages about how the brain develops and how alcohol damages the fetus. She has developed simple experiments that can be done in elementary level classes, and more complex experiments for middle and high schools. These experiments excite students who carry the message home to the family. “Do not drink if you are or might get pregnant, because alcohol hurts the baby.”

The discoveries of Morrow and Sulik are improving health. I admire their success and am proud to have them in our Center for Alcohol Studies.