On May 23, 2014 the Durham VA Medical Center held a ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony as it opened its doors to a new research building. Among those who spoke at the ceremony were a number of distinguished guests from North Carolina, including Congressman G.K. Butterfield; Congressman David Price; Senator Richard Burr; Dr. Timothy Hammond, Senior Medical Officer from the Office of Research & Development; Dr. John Shelburne, Chief of Staff; and DeAnne Seekings, Director of the VA Medical Center.
The medical center now features approximately 80,000 square feet of space for research in mental illness, PTSD, alcoholism, neurobiology/neurophysiology, spinal cord injury, cancer, infectious disease and surgical oncology and more. Because of Duke University's close affiliation with the Durham VA Medical Center a number of Doctors and Researchers work both for the VA and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Two such Doctors were mentioned by Dr. Shelburne, Chief of Staff at the Durham VA Medical Center, for excellence in their research. Dr. Christine Marx was mentioned for her work in the Neurosteriods and Biomarkers program and Dr. Rebekah Fleming for her work in the Adolescent Alcohol Abuse program.
Dr. Christine Marx is the co-director for research at VA's Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center. Her current research at the Durham VA Medical Center focuses on neurosteriods. Marx was interested in an old discovery of a substance that occurs naturally in the brain called pregnenolone, which was first discovered in the 1940's. Pregnenolone is a substance classified as a neurosteriod. Her study of neurosteriods first focused on treating symptoms of schizophrenia. After finding promising preliminary results her research has branched out into other areas, some of particular importance to veterans including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Marx remains cautiously optimistic as she hopes effective treatments will emerge from her studies of neurosteriods.
Dr. Rebekah Fleming’s lab uses physiological methods to increase the understanding of the neural basis of alcohol abuse and addiction. While the biological mechanisms that cause alcohol abuse are still not known, studies show that binge drinking during adolescence and young adulthood increases the risk for alcohol abuse and other poor outcomes in adult life. Fleming’s goal is to understand the brain changes that underlie this increased risk. Using rats as a model, her team has shown that binge-pattern alcohol exposure during adolescence produces long-lasting changes in neurons from the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory and addiction. These changes do not occur if alcohol is given later, once the brain has finished maturing, suggesting that the adolescent and young adult brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Fleming’s ongoing research is focused on identifying the neurotransmitter receptors, transporters, and ion channels that control these neural changes; recent work has focused on using whole-cell electrophysiology in ex vivo hippocampus slices to determine the role of extrasynaptic GABAARs in mediating these effects.
The new Durham VA research building’s 44,000 sq. ft. has laboratory space for twenty-four researches and twenty-six support staff and also has essential equipment to conduct the previously mentioned research. The building has also been designed to encourage collaboration among laboratories. The addition of the new research building brings a hope for new and innovative understanding and treatment of a multitude of illnesses.