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Volume 20, Number 1, March 2009

Thomas Kash, Ph.D.

The UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies (BCAS) welcomes Tom Kash, Ph.D., to our faculty. Kash, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the BCAS, brings exciting research achievements and potential. Kash joins the BCAS from the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He spent the last several years focusing on the electrophysiological alterations in brain slices associated with alcohol withdrawal. “I will continue to use a combination of slice electrophysiology, biochemistry, behavioral manipulations and genetic animal models to better understand alcohol abuse,” said Kash.

“It has long been assumed that dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area are the major source of dopamine that influences the motivation to use alcohol and drugs,” said Kash. “However, recent reports have challenged this dogma, demonstrating that a previously uncharacterized population of dopaminergic neurons originating in the periaqueductal gray (PAG) are involved in the acute rewarding properties of abused drugs, as well as negative states associated with chronic drug use.”

Several reports have shown that the PAG is a major source of dopamine to both the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) and the central nucleus of the amygdala, two regions involved in the negative affect associated with alcohol abuse. Further, in vivo ethanol increases the levels of dopamine in the BNST, and antagonism of dopamine receptors within the BNST can alter alcohol seeking behavior. “The neurons in the PAG have been shown to have altered electrophysiological responses during ethanol withdrawal,” said Kash.

Kash hypothesizes that dopaminergic cells in the PAG are critical for both acute and chronic aspects of alcohol abuse. He is also interested in studies of brain function in the BNST, because this area regulates the stress response and anxiety-like behavior. Kash’s post-doctoral research examined the interactions of acute and chronic ethanol with excitatory transmission in the BNST. “In continuing my research, I will focus on inhibitory transmission in the BNST,” he said. “I plan on utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach to evaluate these hypotheses, building on the extensive experience obtained in slice electrophysiology during my post-doctoral training.”

His work is partially funded by a R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the NIAAA.