About the Chair
Ellen Unterwald, PhD, a nationally recognized neuropharmacologist, is Chair of the Department of Neural Sciences. She is also Director of the Department’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, which is supported by an NIH Center of Excellence grant.
Dr. Unterwald believes that basic and applied research into how the brain and nervous system function in health and disease “have transformative potential at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. Our neuroscience roots are strong and deep, going all the way back to the development of stereotactic surgery. We have opened many doors to new therapeutic approaches, enhancing care paradigms worldwide,” she says.
As Chair, her role is to empower faculty and trainees at all levels to achieve their individual goals, as well as the goals of the Department and School – all with an eye toward bettering human health.
“My goal is to create a collaborative, supportive community for high-impact science and training in the Department – to facilitate many diverse areas of research while also building consensus towards a clear, compelling vision that integrates and amplifies all that we do.”
“Prior to July 2021, Department faculty worked in research centers that rarely intersected. But now that all three connect to one Department, collaborative opportunities sparkle,” she says.
In her own research, Dr. Unterwald looks for novel targets to leverage for the prevention or treatment of substance use disorders. She studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in drug craving and relapse – and is particularly interested in neuroadaptations in neuronal function and structure that result from exposure to drugs of abuse, including psychostimulants, opioids, and alcohol. “These adaptations mediate the processes of drug tolerance, dependence, sensitization, withdrawal and craving – forming the basis of addictive disease,” she says.
Dr. Unterwald also investigates the relationship between stress, anxiety, and drug use, elucidating the molecular basis of susceptibility and resilience to drug-seeking behaviors following exposure to traumatic stress. In other studies, her lab investigates neuroimmune interactions in the context of drug exposure and how they contribute to addiction-related behaviors and to CNS damage. Results from these studies help to identify potential effective therapeutic strategies.
Her research has been published in journals including Nature Neuroscience, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Biological Psychiatry, and the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.