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Taking the Abstract out of Addiction

Calvin Smith (‘22), a recently graduated neuroscience student, witnessed first-hand as the negative effects of drug addiction adversely altered the personalities and mental health of childhood friends. Motivated to explore the brain-altering implications of drug use, Smith joined the Edwards neuroplasticity lab to better understand what was happening.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of connections within the brain to change over time. Generally speaking, these changes underlie learning and memory processes, but also include maladaptive forms of learning like addiction.

“In high school, [some] of the friends I hung out with ended up getting into drugs, which included marijuana and other substances,” Smith recalls. “Most of them were okay, but I had two friends that developed severe reactions over time. One of them developed borderline schizophrenia, or schizoid personality disorder. He’s still a great guy and really smart, but the addictions have drastically changed his life.”

Calvin Smith sitting at his desk, studying a sample
Photo by BYU Photo

Smith joined the Edwards lab as a sophomore in 2019 and has worked on several addiction-related projects. The most recent project focuses on the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)—the psychoactive component of marijuana—on the brain’s reward center in adolescent and adult mice.

“Part of the reason I wanted to be in this lab was to just have a stab at the research and try to understand what’s really going on with THC,” Smith says. “Exactly how does it change the brain’s physiology? And what does that mean for people who use it?”

Genes encode instructions for making proteins. In any given tissue (e.g., the brain), the proteins that are produced, or “expressed,” ultimately determine how the tissue behaves and responds to its environment.

It is well known that addictive drugs of abuse like cocaine and methamphetamine alter gene expression within the brain’s reward center, the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Although it is commonly believed that THC is not addictive, accumulating data suggests otherwise, especially in teenagers. Indeed, the team’s research found that adolescent mice were more susceptible to physiological changes in the VTA than adult mice, which may indicate greater vulnerability to addiction.

In this project, Smith used a technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to measure the gene’s expression in the VTA. With the rest of the Edwards lab PCR team, he found that THC increases the expression of GluA1, a gene involved in neuroplasticity. This pattern has been demonstrated in mice exposed to other addictive drugs such as cocaine and morphine. Therefore, THC may alter the brain through similar processes.

“While I do think there are some helpful medicinal purposes for marijuana and THC,” Smith says, “I think we should also understand the risks of addiction.”

“Calvin is now the leader of our PCR team,” says physiology professor Jeffrey Edwards, Smith’s mentor and director of BYU’s Neuroscience Center. “He is motivated, takes initiative, and can work independently to solve hard problems, which is exceptional.”

Calvin studying a sample
Photo by BYU Photo

For this research, Smith was awarded a College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA), a grant-like award that provides funding to students involved in mentored research. CURAs are mentor-based, student-focused, and awarded to high-achieving students contributing knowledge to the scientific community.

“I really like studying the molecular mechanisms of biology,” Smith says. “Dr. Edward’s neuroplasticity lab provided me a great opportunity to take something as abstract as addiction and focus in on how certain molecular changes can contribute to changes in behavior.”

Smith has committed to attend the Frank Netter School of Medicine in the fall. He hopes to become an academically-focused physician, meaning a physician with additional research responsibilities. He intends to continue seeking out programs (i.e., residencies and fellowships) where he can acquire more research experience in his training as a physician.

“I’m so grateful for Dr. Edwards and the opportunity to participate in this project. He’s been so patient and supportive, even when our team has made mistakes,” Smith says. “Overall, research at BYU has been one of the most impactful experiences of my undergraduate studies.”