Understanding the genetic and environmental underpinnings of substance use behaviors

Arpana Agrawal, Ph.D.

I am an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Born in India (Kolkata), I earned my  Bachelor's in Science (majors in Microbiology, Zoology and Chemistry) as well as concurrent diplomas in Creative English and Psychological Sciences and certificates in Entomology and Environmental Sciences while in Bangalore, India.

In 2000, I joined the Human Genetics PhD. program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA. Why genetics? The idea that we can home in on the building blocks of the most exquisitely complex of species (us!) always fascinated me. In particular, my preliminary training in psychology and zoology, made me wonder about the extent to which human behavior was attributable to genetic factors. Could we measure genetic vulnerability to psychiatric illness? What happened in people who were born with a genetic vulnerability (e.g. family history) but exhibited a resilience to it? And what about perfectly healthy individuals, with no genetic risk factors, who developed mental health challenges after exposure to traumatic life events? Substance use fascinated me - we have a choice when it comes to substance use. Why do we decide to use drugs? How do some individuals develop an addiction? And what predicts remission? Under the mentorship of Dr. Kenneth Kendler, my dissertation research focused on applying twin methodology to disentangling the extent to which genetic and environmental factors influenced predisposition to cannabis (marijuana) and other illicit/illegal drug (e.g. cocaine, hallucinogens, non-prescription opioids, sedatives) use, abuse and dependence.

In 2004, upon receiving my PhD., I continued my research into the genetic epidemiology of cannabis-related behaviors during my postdoctoral training at Washington University School of Medicine. During my postdoc (2004-2006), I worked with Drs. Pam Madden and Andrew Heath on several genomic projects that aimed to identify regions along the human genome, and the role of specific genes (e.g. nicotinic receptors), that influence risk for nicotine dependence and alcoholism.

The rest, as they say, is history. I transitioned to a faculty position in 2006 and shortly after, to Assistant Professor. Currently, I am supported by several principal investigator grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to conduct twin and genetic research on why cannabis and tobacco are commonly co-used across the world and to examine the role of common genetic influences on these drugs.

I have also served as Principal Investigator on a project, from the Alcoholic Beverages Medical Research Foundation (ABMRF), that aimed to  identify genetic variants influencing risk for heavy alcohol consumption and to study their interactions with stressful  life events, especially those occurring during childhood and early adolescence. Other alcohol-related projects are forthcoming.

Via the incredible generosity of Wash U colleagues, I collaborate on numerous genetics projects. I find that the greatest pleasure of being at this leading academic institution is the ability to learn from the absolute best and to have the privilege of training the most talented of undergraduate, grad and postgrad trainees. Please do not hesitate to contact me for further information (arpana@wustl.edu).

 This is a private site for the professional activities of Arpana Agrawal. Statements made on this site do not reflect the views of Washington University in St. Louis, the departments of Psychiatry and Psychology or of anyone else except Dr. Agrawal. Unauthorized use of materials posted is not permitted - please ask before downloading or copying pictures and materials.