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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Bernice Porjesz, Ph.D., to Present Mendelson Lecture May 20


Bernice Porjesz, Ph.D., will present the Jack Mendelson, M.D., Honorary Lecture on May 20, 2014. The lecture is titled: “Neurophysiological Endophenotypes in the Search for Genes for Alcoholism.”

The event will take place at the National Institutes of Health from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm, in Lipsett Amphitheater, NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. The lecture is free and open to the public.

About the Speaker: Dr. Porjesz is a leading research expert in alcoholism, neurophysiology and genetics.  Her research over the past 40 years has transformed the way researchers and professionals understand the relationships between genetics and alcohol, and the underlying factors that predispose a person to alcohol use disorders (AUDs).

Early in her career, Dr. Porjesz discovered subtle deficits in the brain function of alcoholics. Her initial fascination with alcoholism was sparked by her observations that some alcoholics would repeatedly relapse despite their best intentions to remain abstinent. She published several seminal scientific studies detailing various aspects of brain dysfunction in abstinent alcoholics, and noted that many who had stopped drinking continued to experience sensory and cognitive deficits. While some of these deficits improved with abstinence from alcohol, others did not, even after ten years of abstinence.  One such deficit that did not improve with long-term abstinence was the lower than normal amplitude of the P3 or P300 brain wave, a large signal indexing the brain’s ability to selectively respond to significant stimuli.

Dr. Porjesz and Henri Begleiter, Ph.D., her long-time colleague and mentor, hypothesized that rather than being the consequence of chronic alcohol exposure, these neurophysiological deficits perhaps existed before alcoholism ever developed, and their presence indicated an increased risk for developing AUDs.

In 1984, Drs. Begleiter and Porjesz published a study in Science demonstrating that these underperforming brain wave features (lower than normal amplitude of the P3 brain waves), were not only present in abstinent alcoholics but also in their young children, who had never been exposed to alcohol or drugs.  Their ground-breaking study stimulated significant scientific interest in the so-called “High Risk” paradigm, and led them to propose a model that changed the thinking in the field; specifically, that people who have these neurophysiological characteristics prior to alcohol exposure also have an underlying brain hyperexcitability. These features of the brain are highly heritable, and a risk factor for developing alcohol use disorders. This innovative study helped to open the door to the systematic search for the genes underlying this predisposition to develop AUDs.

Dr. Porjesz continues to pursue her scientific vision through her leadership of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA), an NIAAA-funded initiative that Dr. Begleiter helped to launch, and that continues to be on the forefront of cutting edge science under her leadership. Dr. Porjesz has led this groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary, multi-site national collaborative project for the past eight years, and was actively involved since COGA began in 1989. COGA builds on some of her earlier discoveries by demonstrating that certain genetically influenced brain features make people more likely to develop AUDs. Together with her colleagues in the COGA project, her research has led to the identification of genes involved in the development of AUDs.  Under her current leadership, COGA has progressed well beyond gene identification to also focusing on understanding the genetic mechanisms involved in risk, as well as Gene x Environment interactions during the development of AUDs.

NIAAA has continuously funded Dr. Porjesz throughout her long career and awarded her the prestigious MERIT award in 2002. Currently, she is the Principal Investigator of two additional ongoing studies that combine neurophysiological and neuroimaging methods: one that examines structural and functional brain patterns in individuals at risk to develop alcoholism, and the other that examines structural and functional brain dysfunction in alcoholics, including predictors of relapse.

Dr. Porjesz is also dedicated to mentoring graduate students, post-doctoral students and residents. She takes great pride in shepherding her students through their training in brain function and alcohol research and many of her students are now researchers at leading universities and institutions.

Her leadership also extends to serving on the editorial boards of several journals, including the International Journal of Psychophysiology, Clinical Neurophysiology, the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, and Alcohol and Alcoholism. Dr. Porjesz is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed publications and many chapters and reviews. She is regularly invited to deliver presentations on her research throughout the United States and internationally.

Dr. Porjesz has spent her career at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center where she is currently a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a Professor in the Robert Furchgott Center for Neural and Behavioral Sciences. She is also the head of the Henri Begleiter Neurodynamics Laboratory, which she co-directed with Dr. Begleiter, until his death in 2006.

About the Lecture Series:  NIAAA established this annual event as a tribute to Jack Mendelson, M.D., who made remarkable scientific contributions to the field of clinical alcohol research. The purpose of this honorary lecture series is to highlight clinical/human research in the alcohol field by an outstanding investigator who has made significant and long-term contributions to our understanding of alcoholism susceptibility, alcohol’s effects on the brain and other organs, and the prevention and treatment of alcohol use disorders. NIAAA is pleased to present this series of scientific lectures to acknowledge the advances researchers are making in a wide range of alcohol-related areas of clinical research, and to honor the memory of an individual whose exciting and pioneering research remains relevant today.

For additional information about the lecture, visit /about-niaaa/our-work/research-portfolio/projects-initiatives/keller-and-mendelson-honorary-lecture


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