Alcoholism Researcher Receives Prestigious MERIT Award

Dr. Rueben Gonzales, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, has been awarded a $2.8 million MERIT Award from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Established in 1986, the Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) program has become a symbol of scientific achievement in the research community. MERIT Awards are offered to a limited number of investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors.

Gonzales' research involves chemical changes in the brain that underlie alcohol drinking. Of particular interest is the role of dopamine, a chemical produced and found in the brain that relays, amplifies or modulates signals between a neuron and another cell.

Dopamine is known to be associated with behaviors that bring pleasure such as those triggered by drinking. Gonzales' lab, composed of graduate students and undergraduate science majors, is working to determine exactly when and where in the brain the dopamine response occurs.

"We know that dopamine does play a role in the urge to drink," said Gonzales. "What we're trying to determine in our lab is exactly when the dopamine response occurs. This will help answer the basic question of how the dopamine response may guide the individual to select drinking over other behaviors."

Gonzales' MERIT grant includes a direct allocation of $1.9 million plus indirect costs of $900,000 over a 10-year period. This brings the total amount of NIAAA funding for his research to $4.6 million.

Investigators cannot apply for MERIT Awards. The awards are designed to provide long-term stable support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are deemed superior and who are viewed by the selection team as "likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner."

"This is a wonderful award that provides national recognition to one of UT's most outstanding addiction researchers," said Dr. Adron Harris, an expert on addiction research and director of the university's Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research. "Dr. Gonzales is not only an outstanding researcher, but also a great mentor and teacher and a tremendous asset to The University of Texas at Austin."

"It's a great honor to be awarded a MERIT grant," Gonzales said. "It speaks to confidence on the part of the NIAAA review team regarding my work. But more important, it relieves the administrative burden of preparing grant applications and allows me to fully focus on the work in the lab."