Student Spotlight – Annabelle Flores-Bonilla

Annabelle Flores-Bonilla is a 2nd year student in the NSB program in Dr. Heather Richardson’s lab. She received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 2019. Annabelle was a fellow in the UMass Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. As a PREP student, she started a project studying sex differences in alcohol drinking behavior, which was recently published in the journal Biology Sex Differences.

Publication: Flores-Bonilla A, De Oliveria B, Silva-Gotay, A, Lucier KW, Richardson HN (2021). Shortening time for access to alcohol drives up front-loading behavior, bringing consumption in male rats to the level of females. Biology of Sex Differences.12, 51

The objective of this study was to use an operant model of alcohol self-administration to quantify temporal patterns and manipulate reward effort parameters and to test for sex differences in alcohol drinking in adult male and female rats (sex being defined by genetic and/or external genital indices in rodents). Previous reports have documented sex differences in the effect of alcohol on stress and addiction-related brain systems. One possibility is that subtle differences in drinking patterns could affect the timing and peak alcohol concentrations reaching the brain, which may contribute to differential neurobiological outcomes in males versus females. In the 2021 paper, they found that females engaged in rapid drinking immediately after they are given access to alcohol (“front-loading”), consuming almost as much alcohol in 5 minutes that males consume in 30 minutes. This is an important finding, because rapid ingestion of alcohol may produce higher spikes of alcohol concentration in the blood and brain that could have implications for the effect of this molecule on cells in the nervous system and body. Moreover, consuming a lot of alcohol early in the session might lead to higher alcohol consumption overall, which was exactly what they found in these females. They next tested if drinking speed could be manipulated in males and females by changing operant parameters. When they cut the amount of time the rats could access alcohol by half (simulating a “happy hour” drinking scenario), male rats exhibited higher levels of front-loading drinking behavior and ended up consuming as much alcohol as females. Not only do these results give insight into the different factors driving alcohol drinking in males versus females, but they also provide a new strategy by which identical alcohol drinking patterns can be generated in males and females to study the effect of voluntary alcohol drinking on the brain. This model is expected to lead to a more precise understanding of the neuronal activity underlying these patterns of drinking behavior which may play a role in the detrimental effects on mental health that differ by sex.