Professor and director of research receives $1.8 million federal grant

The National Institutes of Health has awarded MU professor Mahesh Thakkar, Ph.D., with a federal grant to study the role of alcohol in insomnia and brain inflammation.

A faculty member of the MU School of Medicine was recently awarded a federal grant to study how alcohol is involved in insomnia and other health issues.

Professor and director of research Mahesh Thakkar, Ph.D., studies alcohol and its effects at MU. According to the MU School of Medicine, his research is centered around understanding sleep disorders in humans and animals. For this specific grant, he will study how alcohol is involved in such sleeping disorders like insomnia.

Alcohol is a drug that is used frequently, and Thakkar and colleague Rishi Sharma, Ph.D. will focus on Alcohol Use Disorder and the direct relationship between AUD and insomnia. Their research involves how frequent alcohol consumption directly and indirectly disrupts sleep, leading to insomnia, sleep disturbances and brain inflammation in mice.

The two researchers plan to use live calcium imaging to determine how the cells in the brain behave while the animal consumes alcohol and how they behave during withdrawal from it. The mice will engage in four-hour binge drinking sessions, and then Thakkar will assess their sleep.

The research will also examine if sleeplessness or alcohol abuse contributes to potentially harmful brain inflammation. The researchers want to determine if brain inflammation is caused by insomnia or by alcohol abuse, because brain inflammation has wide-ranging implications for other diseases in which sleep is then interrupted.

“We want to find out whether lack of sleep [due to alcohol consumption] is the cause of inflammation or whether it’s the alcohol that directly does it,” Thakkar said.

In addition to investigating the cause of inflammation, they also want to find out if alcohol causes other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or other degenerative diseases.

The two were already working on this study when they applied for a grant to further help them in the study, especially to add new data.

Sharma is most excited for being able to understand the reasoning behind sleep disorders and how alcoholism is intertwined with them. So far, people know that alcohol causes sleep problems and that sleep problems lead to alcoholism, but nobody knows how alcohol interacts with sleep mechanisms.

The researchers have previously proposed that alcohol interacts with a part of the brain to affect sleep. This project will allow them to see if alcohol affects sleep homeostasis, the regulation of bodily functions during sleep, an area they haven’t investigated.

Both researchers hope people can benefit from the discoveries in this study to ensure they are not experiencing insomnia and brain inflammation.

“By this project, we are hoping to get some answers about how alcohol causes inflammation or causes sleep problems while implementing sleep mechanisms in the brain,” Sharma said.

Edited by Laura Evans | levans@themaneater.com

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