Getting to know… Cecilia Flores, PhD

Dr. Cecilia Flores recently obtained a large grant by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (an institute of the US-based National Institutes of Health) to pursue her work on the effects of amphetamine on the development of the adolescent brain, specifically on increased vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. We caught up with Dr. Flores to find out more about her work.

Can you describe the subject of your NIH grant?

The goal of this research is to study how drugs of abuse in adolescence have an impact on the development of the prefrontal cortex, increasing psychiatric risk in a lifetime. The prefrontal cortex matures until early adulthood and is highly implicated in impulse control and decision making. The focus is on the stimulant drug amphetamine, which is used recreationally, but also in therapeutic settings. We look at genes that control prefrontal cortex development specifically in adolescence. Our plan is to study whether and why the sensitivity to detrimental effects of drugs in adolescence differs between males and females and whether gene editing tools can reverse vulnerability or induce protection in our mouse models.

This is a major grant for a Canadian researcher - what has led to your success?

A few years ago, my research team identified the first set of genes known to control prefrontal cortex development specifically in adolescence. Before this discovery, the cellular and molecular processes controlling the maturation of the prefrontal cortex in adolescence remained unknown. The National Institute on Drug Abuse became interested in these findings and I applied successfully for a 5-year grant to study these “adolescent” genes in the context of drugs of abuse. We made many interesting discoveries and succeeded in obtaining a grant for another 5 years to continue this work. The emphasis is on sex differences in drug vulnerability, on therapeutic versus recreational drug use, and on experiments that decrease or increase gene function in specific brain regions using CRISPR manipulations in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Day at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

What impact will this grant have on your work?

This grant will allow us to address from various perspectives the question of how drugs of abuse increase vulnerability to addiction. We will be able to use cutting-edge techniques to manipulate and edit gene expression in specific brain regions in male and female mice. Using light sensors, we will measure real-time neurotransmitter signalling in the prefrontal cortex of rodents while they perform complex behavioral tasks. Another goal is to track the growth of neuronal networks across adolescence. This research will provide important mechanistic clues to inform prevention and intervention strategies for youth.

Dr. Flores’ work seeks to investigate how exposure to amphetamine in adolescence alters brain development and whether boys and girls are affected differently. This research involves gene editing manipulation in mouse models and compares effects of excessive drug exposure versus therapeutic-like doses.


How will your research change our understanding of drug use in adolescents?

It will provide information regarding who is most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of drugs of abuse in adolescence, when that vulnerability peaks, and what the underlying neurobiological processes are. It will also shed light on the important issue of whether therapeutic use of amphetamine disrupts adolescent brain development as when consumed recreationally or whether it has beneficial effects.

Do you have any advice for young researchers on success in the academic world?

It is very important to follow your interests and goals and to be very persistent!