Zak Brodnik grew up in an impoverished section of Cleveland, one he described as “a reasonably terrible neighborhood,” where addiction and substance abuse are common. Since he graduated college in 2010, just as the opioid epidemic began sweeping across the country, he’s watched as his neighborhood has suffered an overdose death nearly every other month. He’s at Drexel University to try to stem the tide.
“Growing up in that environment, you see how it destroys families,” said Brodnik, a PhD candidate in neuroscience in the College of Medicine. “Neuroscience seemed like an appropriate place for me to try to make a difference. Seeing a lot of the effects of addiction disorders starting at a young age made me want to go in that direction. That’s the goal for all of us — to find a way to help people.”
In order to better understand addiction and its underlying biological factors, Brodnik joined the lab of Rodrigo España, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. He studies rats, looking for clues to explain why test subjects dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to self-administer cocaine. By examining the comorbidity of PTSD and substance-use disorders, Brodnik hopes to find a way to keep those suffering in the wake of trauma from turning to drugs.
“We can’t tell a person, ‘You’re vulnerable to developing PTSD, don’t be stressed,” said Brodnik. “But we can take a person who has PTSD and potentially treat them so that they’re not going to go out and develop addiction. We can have these intervention treatments that push a person from being vulnerable into being not vulnerable anymore.”
Only about one-third of rats that undergo stress in the lab — induced by the scent of a predator — develop PTSD-like behaviors, Brodnik said. That gives him a cohort of “resilient” rats, as he calls the unfazed rodents, to compare with the “susceptible” group that has a stronger reaction to the stressor. What he’s found so far in his thesis research is that only the susceptible rats have an increased motivation to use cocaine, which they self-administer by pressing a lever in their cages. By examining the biology of the susceptible rats, he’s found that they have higher levels of dopamine after the stressor is introduced, opening up the possibility that susceptible rats — and, eventually, humans — could be made resilient through treatment, serving to counteract their increased cocaine sensitivity.
“There’s a growing need for it right now,” Brodnik said of his research. “There are a lot of veterans that are coming back, but it’s not just veterans. It’s also domestic abuse victims and car crash victims that develop PTSD. So there’s a wide application for it once we nail down the target.”
Brodnik almost didn’t make it this far, to the point where he can consider the ways his research might help people. After graduating with an undergraduate chemistry degree from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, he spent a few years working in a neuropharmacology lab in Cleveland and ran into a wall like most graduate students eventually hit — his just came a bit early.
He’d been working for four months on a complicated lab technique involving the measurement of dopamine in the brain, and he still hadn’t gotten it right. A lab manager kicked him out of the lab in frustration and, as he sat in his car mulling over his options — quit, be fired or get it right — he decided he had no choice but to get past the hurdle. He dove into the literature, spent hours reading up on alternative approaches, and suddenly the data looked the way he’d hoped it would. Within months, the research was published, and Brodnik had learned a critical early lesson in the lab.
“I realized that you have to take hold of your science, and failure is OK as long as you’re figuring out why those failures are happening,” said Brodnik.
Brodnik brought that approach to Drexel, where he’s encountered his share of challenges but has found overwhelming success. This year, he was given the Graduate College’s research excellence award for the College of Medicine, and he’s already been first author on several published articles.
“This lifestyle is not the most welcoming, and you get told ‘No’ a lot,” said Brodnik. “There’s a lot of rejection, and it’s a lot of work, a lot of failure, a lot of figuring out what went wrong. I think my success has come not because I’m particularly bright, but because when things don’t work, instead of walking away I go back and figure out why it didn’t work.”
No matter how he gets there, Brodnik hopes his research contributes in some way to a broader understanding that addiction disorders aren’t a choice — that biological factors help determine whether a person will suffer lifelong consequences for one night of drug use.
“A predisposition exists,” said Brodnik, “and everyone in the world has made choices they weren’t happy about. You shouldn’t be punished for the rest of your life for making that one bad choice.”