Research

The laboratory of “Neurobiology of stress and addiction” at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona is directed by Antonio Armario, Roser Nadal and Raül Andero, and deals with the following topics:

  1. Understanding brain processing of stressors and the usefulness of different biological markers of neuronal activation.
  2. Processes and mechanisms involved in adaptation to chronic stress.
  3. The impact of stress in psychopathology and the underlying neurobiological mechanisms.

Main objectives

  1. Identify brain areas and neuronal phenotypes activated by exposure to emotional and pharmacological (i.e. addictive drugs) stressors. We use expression of immediate early genes (IEGs) such as c-fos and arc and epigenetic changes (i.e. histone phosphorylation and acetylation). Our hypothesis is that epigenetic changes could be more restricted that expression of IEGs and can help identifying critical brain areas and neurons. With these tools we are exploring how simultaneous exposure to two stressors or to one stressor and one addictive drugs interact in the brain.
  2. After repeated exposure to a wide range of predominantly emotional stressors, there is a reduction of the response to the same (homotypic) stressor that is observed at physiological (i.e. hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal hormones) and behavioural levels. Adaptation is also observed in brain expression of IEGs. Our main purposes are to identify cognitive/emotional processes influencing adaptation as well as the brain areas and neurochemical mechanisms involved. One of our main hypotheses is that adaptation to repeated stress is not a simple habituation process, as usually assumed, but a complex brain process that may involve cognitive aspects and associative signals. A second one is that adaptation to stress is so difficult to block pharmacologically or by brain lesions because it likely involves parallel and redundant brain pathways and neurochemical processes.
  3. It has been known for decades that exposure to stress in humans is involved in the origin of some psychopathologies, including anxiety, depression and drug addiction. More recently, it has been demonstrated that a single exposure to certain stressors can result in long-lasting neuroendocrine, cognitive and emotional changes, reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our purpose is to identify the characteristics of the stressors that determine their psychopathological impact, as well as the biological basis of individual differences in resilience or vulnerability to the consequences of stress. In this regard, one of our main focuses is the activation of the HPA axis and its key brain regulator, the corticotropin-releasing factor/hormone (CRF o CRH), which has been demonstrated to be a critical biological link between stress and psychopathology. In addition, we also studied BNDF-trkB pathway as we have obtained evidence that such activation in critical areas such as the hippocampal formation and the amygdala are important to limit the negative consequences of stressors.
  4. Stressful experiences in childhood and adolescence have important implications for long-term behavior and physiology of the adult animal. Our group is using a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the mechanisms by which these effects take place. This line of research has several specific objectives: (1) explore how stressful experiences in early stages of development alter the vulnerability to stress in adulthood, (2) ascertain the impact of these stressful experiences in self-administration of alcohol, (3) identify risk factors that predispose to increased susceptibility to develop diseases associated with stress, and (4) study gender differences in the consequences of early life stress.

Funding

Our group is part of the “Addictive diseases network” (RTA) of the Instituto de Salud Carlos III. The group also receives funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation of Spain (MICINN), the Generalitat of Catalunya (SGR groups) and the Plan Nacional sobre Drogas (MSPS). We are also currently engaged in some behavioural validations of software and hardware systems for rodents from Panlab, SLU.

Equipment and facilities

Currently our lab has the equipment needed to run behavioural experiments in rodents in stress (immobilization in boards, restraint in tube, footshock, cat odor, forced swim), addiction (cocaine and ethanol operant self-administration, conditioned place preference), anxiety/exploration (open field, circular corridor, plus-maze, holeboard, light and dark test, acoustic startle response), learning/memory (Morris water maze, contextual and auditory fear conditioning, shuttle-box) and impulsivity (five choice serial reaction time task and delay discounting). We have also a conventional laboratory and a radioactivity facility to carry out biochemical techniques (ELISA, western blot, radioimmunoassay), as well as histological techniques (immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization). We have also the equipment for stereotactic surgery.

Research environment

The UAB is one of the 5 Universities in Spain that achieved in 2009 the distinction of “Campus of International Excellence”. Our group is part of the Institute of Neurosciences (INc) at the UAB. The multidisciplinary nature of the research carried out in the INc, based on its specialization in different psychiatric and neurological diseases, enriched by the extraordinary collection of cellular and experimental animal models of brain and spinal cord damage, and the scientific advances achieved in recent years, places the INc in an excellent position for training of both predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers and the recruitment of early-career researchers. In addition, the INc core facilities, which include the Cell Culture, Microscopy and Histology Units, facilitate the implementation of different experimental approaches to improve the quality of research. To this end, the INc has qualified and experienced technical staff running the core facilities and a large number of equipment with many features that are difficult to be found in equipment acquired and redeemed by individual groups.

Opportunities for students

If you want to become a graduate student and would like to collaborate with us, you could be enrolled in the Official Master in Neurosciences of our University. The Master is member of NENS, the Network of European Neuroscience Schools. Moreover, our PhD Neuroscience program has been awarded in 2011 with the “Recognition for Excellence” by the Ministry of Education.

If you are an undergraduate at the School of Psychology, willing to participate in our experiments, be enrolled in the “Pràcticum de Psicologia” or in the “Treball de fi de Grau”.

If you are an undergraduate at the School of Biosciences, please go to “Pràctiques en empreses i institucions” for further information. 

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