Q&A: UTHSC faculty named to the nation's highest advisory board for alcohol abuse policy

The appointment enables Dr. Alex Dopico to provide advice to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Alex Dopico, chair of the department of pharmacology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center has been named to the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Dr. Dopico was nominated by NIAAA director George Koob.
 
The council is the highest advisory board for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and is one of 27 institutes and centers that comprise the National Institutes of Health. NIAAA leads the country’s effort to stem alcohol-related problems by conducting and supporting research at the local, state and national levels.
 
It is the largest funder of alcohol research in the world.
 
High Ground News caught up with Dr. Dopico to find out more about this appointment.
 
What does this national appointment mean to you?
This appointment is a recognition of more than a two decade-long research career devoted to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the deleterious effects of alcohol on the brain, the cerebral circulation in particular.
 
What does this mean to University of Tennessee Health Science Center?
It enables the presence of a UTHSC faculty in a forum that provides advice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and to the director of the NIAAA on activities and policies related to the mission of this NIH Institute. This is particularly important nowadays as both Dr. Steven Goodman, UHTSC Vice-Chancellor for Research, and Dr. David Stern, Executive Dean of the College of Medicine consider research on drugs of misuse a priority for UTHSC.
 
What’s the biggest breakthrough you've made in your career related to this subject?
Being the first one to discover that a protein receptor (what we call “BK” ion channel) that is involved in the regulation of several key physiological processes, is a molecular target of ethanol. I found this in the mid-nineties and today, there are numerous groups all over the world following on this early finding.
Second, demonstrating that ethanol-BK channel interaction could, indeed, contribute to alcohol effects in the body: from alcohol-induced diuresis to alcohol-induced constriction of some arteries that control blood flow to the brain. Third, that alcohol action on this receptor is conditioned by the membrane lipid environment of the receptor, which has consequences ranging from alcohol-dietary lipid interactions to possible adaptations in membrane lipids as a consequence of chronic alcohol exposure.
Last but not least, having found and characterized a specific alcohol-recognition site in the BK channel protein: this allows for the future design of novel drugs that by interacting with such site, counteract alcohol actions mediated by BK channels.
 
What can this new appointment help you accomplish locally? Nationally?
The local-national connection is a two-way street: federal priorities on research and policy on alcohol and alcoholism will help UTHSC to prioritize investment on alcohol research and education to the community.  In turn, bringing to D.C. the realities of alcohol consumption in Memphis and West Tennessee will help to craft policies and set priorities for communities across the country that match our own.
 
What is your definition of an alcoholic?
I prefer not to use personal definitions but refer the reader to the NIAAA web site for detail information on the different types of “Alcohol Use Disorders” or AUD. I strongly agree with NIAAA in using this terminology: the term alcoholism should be encompassed within the more ample “drug addiction”, yet this involves a chronic condition.  Alcohol “abuse" in turn, implies some kind of increased amount and/or frequency of drinking. 
On the other hand, AUD, while including both alcoholism and alcohol abuse, extends to other very serious conditions that are involved with drinking low amounts of alcohol (even below levels that result in legal intoxication) at the wrong time: no amount of alcohol drinking is safe for pregnant women to drink as it may result in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
No amount of alcohol drinking is safe when we go at the steering wheel. Period.
 
Where will your research be in 2020 at the end of your term? 10 years?
Hopefully, still opening new paths on alcohol actions in the brain while sharing my expertise on the field with colleagues, fellows, academic leaders, policy makers and, more important, the community at large.

Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters. 
 
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