Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is on a growth mission. With strong funding in recent years, the people in his lab have been pressed into pretty close quarters. Now with the promise of an Alcohol Research Center grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, pressures on space will only increase. Soon, the Miles lab will expand into the new Molecular Medicine Research Building, which Miles says will allow them the room to “decompress a little and hire new people.”

Miles’ research interest is alcoholism and why some people are more vulnerable to becoming addicted than others. Using the basic science tools of genetics, Miles studies genes that get turned on when alcohol is consumed. But rather than looking for a gene or two that influence alcohol’s effects, he takes a whole genome approach to assess the pattern of gene expression.

“We may identify some important single genes along the way, but our mantra is: ‘It’s the network, stupid’,” says Miles, who is also affiliated with the Department of Neurology.

Alcohol produces a range of effects in animal behavioral models, like reducing anxiety. Some people may drink to reduce anxiety and may keep drinking to avoid an increase in anxiety that can occur with alcohol withdrawal. Miles’ basic premise is that the way in which individual animals or humans respond to a single dose of alcohol will correlate with their risk for alcohol abuse, a relationship that’s been well documented.

A striking finding recently illustrated how Miles might apply his research. In experiments where inbred mice can choose to drink an alcohol solution or plain water, Miles says some animals drink hardly at all, while others drink like crazy, preferring alcohol 70 percent of the time compared to water.

“But they’re genetically identical,” he says, so something else must be different. “It must be something in their environment that has changed the way their genes are expressed, and that’s influencing the way they’re drinking alcohol.”

He’s identified gene networks that correlate with this drinking behavior and is now testing interventions.

“Hopefully that’s where we’ll go in the future,” he says. “To take what we learn about gene networks involved in drinking behavior to generate hypotheses about how we can intervene.”

With other pharmacology labs joining him in the new building, Miles is excited to be in the midst of a hub of activity. Not only will it be easier to share equipment, but also ideas about the effects of alcohol and other addictive drugs on behavior.

“That’s very exciting for me because I’m going to have a lot more of my colleagues over here,” says Miles. “Proximity really helps.”

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report