When we pay attention, our brains are busy with the task at hand.

But with no goal-centered thoughts to occupy them, the task-oriented regions of our brains take a break and other regions become more active. That’s when people daydream. Neuroscientists call this state the default mode network.

Now, researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are using advanced brain imaging techniques to examine how this state of mind may be playing a role in alcohol use disorder.

Jeremy Myslowski, a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program, is investigating whether people with the disorder could be trained to control their brain to improve their mental agility and even potentially reduce their cravings for things that do not serve their best health interests.

Myslowski, who works in Stephen Laconte’s, laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, will test his hypothesis with an $80,000, two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award program. LaConte is an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics.

“In substance use, a part of this default mode network is driven up when the substance isn't around and is more relaxed when a person has access to that substance,” Myslowski said. “We want to see if people with alcohol use disorder are able to modulate this network, to change their thought pattern and their brain activity.”

His study could point to a new kind of treatment for people with substance use disorders, said LaConte. According to the National Institutes of Health, in 2019 nearly 15 million people 12 and older in the United States had alcohol use disorder.

“It might be a kind of holistic approach to future rehabilitation and therapy approaches,” LaConte said. “A deeper understanding about how the brain works mechanistically might be unlocked through asking the questions that Jeremy is investigating.”

The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute may be the only place where Myslowski can answer to his questions, LaConte said. He will use prior alcohol use study data collected by LaConte and Warren Bickel, professor and director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center and the research institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research, and a co-mentor on the fellowship.

In addition, Myslowski will depend on experimental approaches that LaConte’s lab invented that gives research participants real-time feedback on their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI).

Myslowski will analyze subjects’ alcohol use records and the patterns of brain activity in individual volunteers, with the goal of identifying relationships to differing severities of alcohol use disorder that will ultimately lead to potential approaches to intervene to reduce consumption.

“There's a spectrum of severity, but most imaging studies don’t assess it,” Myslowski said.

Myslowski will study 50 people with alcohol use disorder and attempt to control their default mode network. Using real-time fMRI neurofeedback, each participant will undergo an MRI scan while looking at a meter, similar to a car’s speedometer, that represents the network activity in real time. Participants will attempt to alternately focus their mind or let it wander on cue to see whether they can control the needle.

Myslowski hypothesizes that those with less severe alcohol use disorder will have greater ability to control their brain activity, while those more severe will find the tasks more challenging.

The study’s findings could potentially lead to a new kind of therapy for alcohol use disorder, but also provide the tools to track the disorder in a more precise way with brain-based metrics.

“Anything we can do to better understand the mechanisms and develop the efficacy of treatment techniques is good,” LaConte said.

Myslowski credits the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, LaConte, Bickel, and the institute’s research facilities, including multiple human MRI scanners, for his success in earning the NIH grant for his research.

“I wouldn't even have the grant if I didn't have such a good team of people helping me,” Myslowski said.

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