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George Koob

George Koob

The Scripps Research Institute

Alcoholism Research Agency Names New Director

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced yesterday that it has tapped neurobiologist George Koob of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, to direct the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), starting January 2014. The move signals the end of a long period of limbo for the agency, which has operated under an acting director for several years while NIH deliberated on whether to merge the agency with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  

“We are delighted with his appointment and how this reflects the breadth of what research into alcohol abuse and alcoholism means—to NIH, yes, but even more so for the importance of it for our nation's public health,” says Alan Kraut, executive director of the Association for Psychological Science. Although APS was “open” to the idea of merging the two agencies, Kraut says that Koob, an expert in alcoholism who also specializes more generally in the neurobiology of addiction, will bring “exactly the right perspective, acknowledging that barriers between substantive areas of science are becoming fewer and fewer these days.’ ” Both alcohol researchers at NIAAA, who feared that their work would be subsumed by NIDA’s broader focus if the two agencies were joined, and researchers and administrators who hoped that such a marriage would foster more efficient and coordinated research are likely to be pleased by the selection, Kraut predicts.

When NIH decided not to go forward with the merger last year, Director Francis Collins said that it would instead strive for “functional integration” of research between the two agencies. Koob jokes that he’d been “functionally integrating” long before that was considered an acceptable goal in addiction research. “Back in the day,” he says, one was expected to be “true” to one’s funding agency, and it was often considered “too ambitious” to venture beyond one’s silo—be it alcoholism or cocaine addiction. But, he notes, “I’ve always been funded by both NIDA and NIAAA.”

As a legal drug enjoyed by millions of people, alcohol has unique social and health impacts, which distinguish it from other addictive substances and which deserve to be examined in their own right, Koob says. Fetal alcohol syndrome, liver disease, and binge drinking, particularly among adolescents,  are just a few of the issues unique to alcohol that Koob looks forward to tackling as director.  

At the same time, he says that his work in alcohol has always informed his research on other drugs and aspects of addiction, and vice versa. “It was some of our opiate work that first sensitized me—pun intended—to the idea that the [brain’s] reward system was compromised” in alcohol dependence, he says, “whereas it was the alcohol work that sensitized me to the idea that the stress system plays a key role in the development of dependence on non-alcohol drugs.” One of his goals as director of NIAAA’s $458 million annual budget will be to foster research that examines commonalities between different forms of addiction.

Joining forces with other NIH agencies is important because “alcoholism is comorbid with everything you can think of,” from posttraumatic stress disorder to nicotine addiction, Koob says. He believes his long-standing scientific collaboration with NIDA Director Nora Volkow and good relationships with other NIH leaders will also make it easier to coordinate research.

“Nora and I really share a lot of goals and ideas—it’s going to range from things that are already under way, such as training grants where both NIDA trainees and alcohol trainees are trained under the same program, to joint projects where perhaps one leg of a clinical trial can be a NIDA drug and the other leg can be alcoholism and another leg can be another substance dependence like nicotine. We’ll reap a double benefit of whether a treatment is working for both or only for one,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things I’m looking forward to.”