Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)


Biomedical Sciences

Date of Award


Committee Chair or Co-Chairs

Russell W. Brown

Committee Members

Justin Gass, Brooke Schmiechel, Michelle Chandley, Antonio Rusinol, Sean Fox


Schizophrenia is a severe neuropsychiatric disorder of largely unknown etiology that is often accompanied by high rates of cigarette smoking, reduced quit success, and high relapse rates. Dysregulated dopamine signaling and aberrant synaptic plasticity in the mesocorticolimbic pathway are implicated in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and conferred substance abuse disorder and relapse vulnerability. Genetic factors are presumed to play a significant role in the development of schizophrenia, with a 40-50% concordance rate for monozygotic twins, although genetic markers are inconsistent. As such, epigenetic factors have instead been implicated. Specifically, there is strong evidence to suggest DNA methylation at several candidate genes contributes significantly to the pathophysiology of schizophrenia.

To investigate this heritable component, our laboratory has developed a novel heritable model of drug abuse vulnerability in psychosis. This model is the first to show heritable increases in dopamine D2 receptor sensitivity via several behavioral and neurobiological markers, including enhanced behavioral responding to nicotine and changes in D2 signaling cascades in brain regions associated with psychosis and comorbid drug abuse. Increased D2 receptor sensitivity is the most consistent biomarker of psychosis found in preclinical animal models and postmortem brain tissue of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, lending considerable strength to the validity of the model.

This study aimed to further validate the model as a useful and valuable tool for better understanding the pathophysiology of comorbid nicotine use and relapse in psychosis, and to explore more effective therapeutic targets than current antipsychotic medications. Results reveal DNA methylation as an epigenetic mechanism conferring heritability of the psychosis-like phenotype in the model. We additionally demonstrate altered relapse-like behavior, clinically consistent with reduced quit success and elevated relapse vulnerability. Interestingly, changes in relapse-like behavior were correlated to elevated protein levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a marker of activity-dependent plasticity, in brain areas associated with drug reward. Further, modulation of the metabotropic glutamate type 5 (mGlu5) receptor alleviates the enhanced nicotine conditioned place preference observed in the model. Mechanistically, mGlu5 modulation restores normal dopamine D2 signaling and mitigates aberrant plasticity responses that are thought to drive the behavior in a region-specific manner.

Document Type

Dissertation - embargo


Copyright by the authors.

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