Dr. Rueben Gonzales, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, has been awarded a $2.8 million MERIT grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Established in 1986, the Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) program has become a symbol of scientific achievement in the research community. MERIT Awards are offered to a limited number of investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors.
The award to Gonzales includes a direct allocation of $1.9 million plus indirect costs of $900,000 over a 10-year period. The award is tied to his grant titled "Neurochemical mechanisms of ethanol self-administration."
Gonzales' research includes investigating the chemical changes in the brain that underlie alcohol drinking. Of particular interest is the role of dopamine, a chemical produced and found in the brain that relays, amplifies or modulates signals between a neuron and another cell.
Dopamine, Gonzales explains, is known to be associated with behaviors that bring pleasure such as those triggered by drinking. His lab is working to determine exactly when and where in the brain the dopamine response occurs. This information, he says, will help to determine the role of dopamine in the development of addictive behaviors. Eventually, basic knowledge of how brain chemicals change in response to alcohol may help to develop new treatments for those who have drinking problems.
"We know that dopamine does play a role in the urge to drink," he said. "What we're trying to determine in our lab is exactly when the dopamine response occurs. That will help answer the basic question of how the dopamine response may guide the individual to select drinking over other behaviors."
Investigators cannot apply for MERIT Awards. Instead, researchers make application to NIAAA for new or renewal grants, known as R01 grants. From those applications, NIAAA staff and members of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism review R01 applications that meet the criteria for a MERIT Award.
The awards are designed to provide long-term stable support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are deemed "superior" and who are viewed by the selection team as "likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner."
Dr. Adron Harris, an expert on addiction research and director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at the university said, "This is a wonderful award that provides national recognition of one of UT's most outstanding addiction researchers. Dr. Gonzales is not only an outstanding researcher, but also a great mentor and teacher and a tremendous asset to the University of Texas."
"It's a great honor to be awarded a MERIT grant," Gonzales said. "It speaks to confidence on the part of the NIAAA review team regarding my work. But more importantly, it relieves the administrative burden of preparing grant applications and allows me to fully focus on the work in the lab."
He explained that researchers often work for several years before being awarded their first RO1 grant. The process involves weeks of effort to compile data in support of the application. In addition, applying for grant renewal also requires another significant input of time.
"Time applying for grant support is time away from the research lab," he explained. "There's a great sense of relief in knowing that the NIAAA has given a nod of support for my work for this length of time."
He is also quick to point to the contributions of his lab team, graduate students from pharmacology and neuroscience, as well as undergraduate science majors who carry out the daily operations of the lab.
"I can't say enough about the dedication and hard work of my team," he said. "They are a great group."