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UT Austin professor boldly probes the universe that is the human brain

On the first day of class each year, Dr. Adriana Alcantara reminds her students of the powerful technology — from ballistic missiles to supercomputers– available in the modern world.

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AUSTIN, Texas—On the first day of class each year, Dr. Adriana Alcantara reminds her students of the powerful technology — from ballistic missiles to supercomputers– available in the modern world.

“Then I pull out my jar with a human brain, and I say that none of that compares to the potential power and complexity of what we have here,” she said. “The universe is endless with its galaxies, planets, stars, black holes. I look at the brain, and it’s like a universe unto itself — infinitely powerful, complex, awe inspiring and always in need of further exploration.”

Alcantara is an assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Institute for Neuroscience and the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research. She recently received the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program in Neuroscience in recognition of her distinguished record in behavioral neuroscience research and education.

Also UT Austin’s Searle Scholars Program nominee, Alcantara studies cellular mechanisms underlying movement, thinking and emotion in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

Her aim is to improve basic understanding of those functions and to find out exactly what leads to a variety of neuropsychiatric and degenerative disorders originating there. Alcantara explained that the basal ganglia is at the heart of a number of clinical disorders including Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette’s syndrome and drug addiction.

Alcantara said when extreme dysfunctions play out in the cognitive areas of the basal ganglia and related brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, the result can be schizophrenia. Motor dysfunctions in the basal ganglia and related areas can result in the trembling movements of Parkinson’s disease or the motor tics associated with Tourette’s syndrome.

“Drug addiction, on the other hand, involves the release of dopamine in the reward related or pleasure areas of the basal ganglia known as the ventral striatum or nucleus accumbens. These pleasure areas are chemically and physically linked to cognitive and motor areas. That is why cocaine can produce schizophrenic-like and Parkinson’s-like symptoms, in addition to its euphoric effects,” she said.

Alcantara said her job as a psychologist and as a researcher of the chemical neuroanatomy of the brain “is to identify the roadmap” for a variety of human behaviors showing which brain areas are communicating with one another, as well as which synaptic circuits and receptors they are using to communicate.

She is interested specifically in neurotransmitters called dopamine, acetylcholine and glutamate. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow communication to occur between nerve cells (or neurons), and it is the combination of these chemical messages and their actions on specific receptors that have such a profound influence on physical movements, behaviors, thoughts and feelings.

“Ultimately, this work may lead to improved receptor targeted therapeutic treatments combined with behavioral therapy,” she said.

The brain’s various chemical messages can be received only by the specific receptors for which they are intended. In contrast, she explained, “A drug acts indiscriminately — like a bomb.”

A drug doesn’t simply target the pleasure or reward centers the consumer wants to affect, Alcantara said. “It also hits everything else that has those specific receptors. A drug can flood the receptors or it can block them, disrupting normal cell activity and making ïinappropriate’ connections or synapses. (Synapses are the gaps neurotransmitters have to cross between two communicating nerve cells.)

“Alternatively, drugs can destroy appropriate connections,” she said. “The drug will also affect many other brain areas and functions indirectly through the intricate circuitry of the brain. It makes the system go haywire. It physically changes the wiring and ultimately kills it.”

Alcantara got her start in the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded Minority Access to Research Careers Scholarship Program at California State University. The program is now titled the Career Opportunities in Research Education and Training, or COR.

She was graduated from California State in 1986 with a bachelor of arts degree in biopsychology. She earned her Ph.D. in 1993 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, where she received an American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship. She did post doctoral work at Yale and at the University of California at San Diego.

Alcantara also recently gave a “COR STAR” plenary talk at the 20th Anniversary COR meeting in Washington, D.C. She believes that this honor and the APA award serve two important purposes.

“First, this demonstrated to NIMH that these programs (about a dozen total in the country) work, and that they need to continue encouraging and funding underrepresented minorities. The second purpose was to show the students in these programs that it can be done,” she said. “Hard work and good mentoring will pay off when you have a system that wants to see you succeed.”

For more information, contact Dr. Adriana A. Alcantara, (512) 232-5745.

For a photo, contact Marsha Miller at (5120 471-3151 or see: