University of Pennsylvania, USA
Following the completion of her doctoral degree in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, Dr. An-Li Wang joined the University of Pennsylvania. Utilizing state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG), An-Li has been studied the brain and behavioral effects of opioid treatment on opioid dependent patients, especially to understand how treatment affects patients’ social cognition. Also, An-Li has employed neuroimaging techniques in public health communication research, to investigate whether neural activities in response to persuasive messages could predict long-term behavioral changes, including smoking reduction and condom use. Recently, An-Li was appointed as a Research Assistant Professor at the School of Medicine at Penn and received a K99/R00 award from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Opioid dependence is associated with reduced sensitivity to natural rewards and pro-social deficits, including caregiving. Caring for the young is a fundamental social phenomenon that may be released by typical external appearance characteristic of juvenile animals and humans that are perceived as “cute”. These physical features were defined by Konrad Lorenz as “Baby schema”, which was postulated that it is a “key stimulus” that “releases” a caregiving instinct. Recently, our group found that “Baby schema” activates the ventral striatum, a key component of the brain reward pathway. Naltrexone is a competitive opioid antagonist, that effectively treats opioid addiction by competitive blockade of opioid receptors, primarily of the mu type. Using injectable extended-release preparation (XRNTX), we hypothesized that naltrexone may modulate the baby schema response in opioid addicts. Forty-seven opioid dependent patients and 25 controls underwent two functional magnetic resonance imaging sessions, approximately ten days apart, while viewing infant portraits with high and low baby schema content and rating them for cuteness. Immediately after the first session, patients received an injection of extended-release naltrexone, while controls received no treatment. Whole brain analysis of variance showed gender by group by session interaction in the ventral striatum. Brain responses increased in female patients and decreased in male patients across sessions, while the pattern was reversed in the controls. Our findings show that naltrexone modulation of the brain response to key social stimulus depends on opioid homeostasis and gender and suggest that baby schema response may be used to evaluate the effects of prescribed or abused opioids on social cognition.