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Lab Chat With Dr. Lucas Sjulson

Lab Chat With Dr. Lucas Sjulson

By Gary Goldenberg
Lucas L. Sjulson, M.D., Ph.D., studies the neurons and brain circuits that underlie substance use disorders. After earning doctoral and medical degrees at Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Sjulson completed a residency in psychiatry at New York University. He joined the Einstein faculty in 2018, where he is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience. He is also a psychiatrist at Montefiore.
Lucas L. Sjulson, M.D., Ph.D. (Photo by Jason Torres)

Where are you from?

Minnesota, where there’s a large Swedish population. My name is not as unusual there as it is here.

Were your parents in the health professions?

My dad’s a dentist, and my mom went back to school to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology while I was in high school. That’s what got me interested in studying the brain.

What led you to studying substance use disorders (SUDs)?

In college, two of my friends got addicted to heroin. They’re both OK now, but I guess I internalized that experience. Later, during my medical internship, I was surprised by how many patients were hospitalized for reasons related to SUDs—lung disease from smoking, liver disease from alcohol. I realized that SUDs were a huge problem that I had to work on.

Were you interested in learning why those friends got addicted and others didn’t?

I’ve been more interested in how you can help people who already have SUDs. What starts the process is important to understand, but it may be not relevant to curing it. Years of drug use physically change the brain. That’s what you have to address.

What is the focus of your latest National Institutes of Health grant?

We’re trying to understand the subtypes of neurons involved in opioid use disorder and relapse, using mice as an experimental model. We focus on cells of the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward system.

You’ve also studied the spatial context of drug use. Could you explain?

Relapse can be triggered by exposure to “people, places, and things” that people previously associated with drug use. Which raises questions: how are those association memories stored in the brain, and is it possible to erase them? There’s some evidence that these memories are changeable when activated. We’re interested in exploiting these findings for treating SUDs.

Do you still practice medicine?

I devote about 10% of my time to seeing patients. While I focus mainly on developing new treatments, I think it’s also important to stay up to date on current treatments.

Have you studied alcohol use disorder?

Yes, and maybe I’ll get back to that. Most people who have cocaine use disorder also have alcohol use disorder—a particularly severe combination. The two substances complement each other; it’s a “peanut butter and jelly” sort of thing. Unfortunately, there are separate NIH institutes for studying alcohol and drug addiction. That artificial separation has slowed research into the interaction between these substances.

Outside the lab, what do you do for fun?

I don’t have fun anymore—I have three kids [laughs]. To be honest, my work is my hobby. It’s not a 9-to-5 grind where I have to go home and relax. What we’re doing in the lab is exciting and fun.

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