Where Ideas Grow

Research Award for the study of adolescent vulnerability to drugs

Researcher Renata Alves, who recently completed her research work at i3S, won the Ispa Prize for Research in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences 2022 with an article (in which she is the first author) on the impact of maternal separation in the first two weeks of life in rats with different vulnerabilities to depression.

Renata Alves explained that in the work “we conclude that the early stress caused by separation from the mother increases the probability of experimentation and dependence on psychoactive drugs during adolescence, regardless of the existence of a genetic propensity for depression”. The study, coordinated by Ana Magalhães in the Addiction Biology group at i3S, in collaboration with the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Porto (FPCEUP), was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The study aimed to evaluate the impact of the combination of genetic factors (susceptibility to depression) and early social stress induced by maternal separation (which is a well-characterized animal model for inducing early stress) on the vulnerability to the development of addiction problems in young mice.

The researcher told us that to do this “we used two strains of mice with different vulnerabilities to depression, which were separated from their mothers three hours a day during the first two weeks of life. That is, we compared the effects of early separation in adolescent rats whose mothers were more predisposed to anxiety and depression, with adolescent rats born to mothers without this predisposition”. When the study animals reached adolescence the research team then assessed their emotional state and the reward effect of psychoactive drugs.

“The results of this study revealed that maternal separation altered the behavior of both adolescent rats with depressive characteristics, which began to show more anxious-like behaviors, and non-depressive adolescent rats, which began to demonstrate more exploratory behaviors. Despite these very different responses in both cases it was found that maternal separation increased vulnerability to conditioning by psychoactive substances such as cocaine, showing that maternal separation appears to be a greater factor than susceptibility for depressive states”.

For Renata Alves, who is currently working as a researcher at the Cambridge University ALBORADA Drug Discovery Institute, who has the aim of discovering new drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, this award represents “the recognition of the dedication and quality of the work developed”.

The Ispa Prize for Research in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences is awarded to young researchers in Portugal in the field of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences and aims to stimulate research and innovation, method, creativity, and scientific rigor. The award is for scientists under the age of 35 who have obtained their last degree less than 5 years ago, whose research work has been carried out in a national R&D institution, and has published in international journals in the last three years.