Heather N Richardson received her MS from Villanova University and her PhD from Michigan State University. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute and a staff scientist at the Scripps Research Institute. She is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Funding from NIAAA helps support her research team in the Neurobiology of Stress and Addiction Laboratory.


Early onset of drinking - especially heavy episodic binge drinking – is associated with reductions in white matter, cognitive abilities, and an increased risk of stress-related disorders such as alcohol dependence in adulthood. Th is suggests that drinking experiences may alter adolescent brain development and have long-lasting eff ects on mental health risk in adulthood. Alternatively, these neural and behavioral characteristics may be present prior to, and potentially lead to, heavy drinking early in adolescence. To help delineate these two possibilities we developed a pre-clinical model of voluntary binge drinking in adolescent male and female rats. Th is operant self administration model uses sweetened alcohol and a dynamic, intermittent drinking schedule to stimulate high voluntary intake of alcohol in during adolescence in outbred Wistar rats (i.e., without a predisposition for alcohol abuse or dependence). We found that voluntary drinking during early adolescence aff ected myelinated axons in the prefrontal cortex, a structure important for executive control over emotions and goal directed behavior. Th e data support the hypothesis that early exposure to alcohol may interfere with the normal developmental processes taking place during adolescence. Our fi ndings also highlight the importance of self-administration models for investigating mechanisms underlying the links between alcohol, brain development, and behavior.