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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

About Edith Sullivan, Keller Award Honoree


Photo of Edith SullivanEach year NIAAA presents the Mark Keller Award to an outstanding researcher who has made significant and long-term contributions to our understanding of how alcohol affects the body and mind, how we can prevent and treat alcohol use disorders, and how today's scientific advancements can provide hope for tomorrow.  This year's Keller Award recipient and lecturer is Dr. Edith V. Sullivan, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. 

Dr. Sullivan is a leading expert on the neuroscience of alcohol use disorders (AUDs). She has dedicated much of her 35-year research career to showing how brain injuries resulting from AUDs contribute to specific cognitive and motor problems. In addition to AUDs, she investigates how other neuropsychiatric conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia affect brain structure and function.

With an approach that combines a range of structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging methods with neuropsychological assessment, Dr. Sullivan seeks to identify patterns underlying how AUDs differentially spare and impair brain systems. Her work has led to the hypothesis that AUDs change brain structure and function, ultimately evolving into the neural basis for why people continue to drink excessively.  Dr. Sullivan has also demonstrated that the classical alcohol-nutritional deficiency brain pathology seen in Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome exists in less severe form in "uncomplicated" alcoholism and can explain much of AUD-related cognitive deficiencies.

Dr. Sullivan’s interest in brain related conditions grew out of her experience as a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1970s to mid-1980s. There, she had the opportunity to work with the famous patient, H.M., who had brain surgery for relief of intractable epilepsy. The surgery removed selective brain tissue in the medial temporal lobes of both hemispheres of his brain. His seizures subsided, but he then suffered from profound amnesia.  The research challenge was to determine which component processes of memory were impaired and which were spared with this brain pathology.

Inspired by techniques used in brain lesion research, Dr. Sullivan applied these concepts to dissect impairments in cognitive and motor function that non-amnesic alcoholics might endure. Combining neuropsychology with neuroimaging approaches has resulted in the identification of brain circuits disrupted in AUD which underlie functional impairment. The approach also identifies spared circuits that have the potential to enable functional recovery with sobriety.

In addition to her research, Dr. Sullivan is committed to laboratory teaching and mentoring. She considers it “my personal responsibility,” and is proud to have guided emerging scientists on their research during the course of her career, and especially gratified that so many of them have gone on to successful academic careers at major universities.   

For her research, Dr. Sullivan has received numerous honors, including an NIH Merit Award and the Distinguished Researcher Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism in 2011. More recently, the University of North Carolina also paid tribute to her work with the Bowles Lectureship Award, which recognizes distinguished researchers whose work has considerably enriched our understanding of alcohol-related problems.

The author of more than 250 peer-reviewed papers and many chapters and reviews, Dr. Sullivan is currently editor-in-chief of Neuropsychology Review. She also sits on the editorial board of numerous other scientific journals. She is frequently invited to give presentations at conferences around the world. This past year, she was the keynote speaker at the Inaugural Collaborative Meeting of the American Psychological Association Divisions of Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse and Society of Addiction Psychology in Atlanta, and the keynote speaker at the French Neuropsychological Society in Caen, France.

Prior to joining the Stanford University School of Medicine, where she has mentored scientists and conducted research for 25 years, Dr. Sullivan served as a researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, California; at the Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory at Brandeis University; and the Department of Psychology at MIT. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology at the University of Connecticut.


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