It’s been a long, strange trip from homeless addict to groundbreaking neuroscientist for Professor Judy Grisel
by Susan Lindt photographs by Dustin Fenstermacher
Judy Grisel standing on street
Judy’s Journey
by Susan Lindt photographs by Dustin Fenstermacher
It’s been a long, strange trip from homeless addict to groundbreaking neuroscientist for Professor Judy Grisel
Psychology professor Judy Grisel has mastered change — the kind of monumental change that rewrites a life.
As a young adult, the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction left her a homeless college dropout before she successfully sought recovery in her 20s.

Then she changed again, earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience and transforming into an internationally noted addictions researcher. And she laughs about another drastic lifestyle change that came at 38, when she married a man with two sons and became a first-time mother a year later.

Although the role of addiction in Grisel’s life has dramatically changed, it remains her focus. In her youth, she was beholden to a habit that no longer brought the highs it once did and now promised to kill her, given enough time. So with the unbridled tenacity common in addicts, Grisel earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience to figure out a way to keep using drugs without addiction — a goal she today calls both arrogant and ignorant.

“People have been using drugs since the beginning of time,” she says. “It’s human nature to want to change how we experience the world and explore our own psyche. Altering our brains is one way to do that. I want to end addiction because it’s a place where there’s no choice, and it’s tragic, but I don’t want to end using. There’s nothing wrong with social using if you can do it, but we should acknowledge that some of us can’t do it.”

Who becomes addicted and why fascinates Grisel. Her research focuses on antecedents to addiction — things that predispose some people to addiction before they ever use drugs.

“A lot of people who study addictions study the effects of chronic use,” she says. “I want to know what it is about the brain that makes people prone to addiction. With alcohol, only 10 to 15 percent become addicted. With opiates, it’s only about a third. I want to know what is different about the brains of people who are especially prone or especially resistant to addiction before they ever try a drug.”

Grisel says gender, age, stress levels and genetics are key antecedents forecasting addiction, but she focuses on sex differences in male and female brains that may affect addiction — an interest sparked by her early drug study in which male and female mice had unexpected and dramatically different responses to the same drug (see Page 35).

After joining Bucknell’s psychology department in 2012, Grisel met Susquehanna University Biology Professor Erin Rhinehart, who studies gestational programming, including how some prenatal conditions might predispose males to addiction. Early on, they figured out they could share resources, namely research mice. But in time, Grisel’s research influenced Rhinehart to shift her own research to addiction, especially because research so rarely considered sex differences.

“I wouldn’t have worked on addiction at all if it weren’t for Judy,” Rhinehart says. “She’s a great collaborator and mentor. For the students I work with, you have to talk a while before they get on board with ‘gestational programming.’ But they get very excited when you say the word ‘addiction.’ ”

That word attracted Todd Nentwig M’17, who was earning his psychology degree at Susquehanna.

Their common personal experiences with addiction made him a good fit to become Grisel’s first master’s student. Nentwig applied Grisel’s earlier research to form the basis for his thesis, and the trio collaborated on a binge-drinking study. He’s now a neuroscience doctoral candidate at The Medical University of South Carolina.

“During my Ph.D., I continue to research alcohol and drug addiction,” he says. “I plan to pursue a career in academic science, like Judy has.”

By design, Grisel elevates students in her lab from mere learners to contributors. “I like being in the lab with undergraduates — I’ve had students come up with ideas that generated new lines of research,” she says. “I tell students who come to work with me that I don’t want an employee — I want a collaborator.”

Grisel met one collaborator in an unlikely manner last year. Kiarah Leonard was walking home in a downpour when Grisel offered her a ride. Heading into her last year at Lewisburg Area High School, Leonard needed a senior project. Grisel told Leonard about jobs at her Bucknell research lab.

“Judy said I’d be working with mice,” Leonard says. “Todd [Nentwig] was doing this study on binge drinking, and I had to remove the adrenal gland from dead mice. I was like, ‘Ooookay, this is real science stuff.’ I just did it, and then I started to like it.”

In Grisel’s lab, Leonard already was a scientist. “The study I did, I did all by myself,” she says. “Judy always let us think for ourselves. She said, ‘You have a mind. Let me hear what you think.’ ”

Inspired by Grisel, Leonard headed off to Susquehanna University this fall, eager to make her mark in science.

Meanwhile, Grisel is set to make her own mark with her forthcoming book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, in which she boils down addiction neuroscience for general readers. Grisel calls it a popular science book that decidedly is not a memoir.

“I want to be focused on neuroscience, and my interpretation of the neuroscience is informed by my own experiences,” she says. “The book covers everything — predisposing factors, acute and chronic consequences of individual drugs, and why and how addiction generally occurs.”

She also emphasizes the crucial effect of using too often, which reduces the pleasurable effects and leaves users addicted.

“What I didn’t understand when I was using was that the more you take a drug, the more the brain produces the exact opposite effect of what you want,” she says. “If you don’t want to become an addict, don’t use regularly.”

In the book Grisel describes the effects of various drugs on the brain. It’s a practical approach to the human inclination to alter reality, says Grisel, who also presents addiction information in schools and prisons.

“The science is so important because some of us are much more likely to fall down that slippery slope,” she says. “So I say, ‘Here’s a drug likely to damage your brain the first time you try it. Here’s another drug that has a bad reputation but isn’t as damaging to your brain.’ In a culture where we demonize things or think they’re great, we miss the truth, which is somewhere in the middle. I want to help people negotiate that.”

Grisel was invited to weigh in on marijuana legalization to legislators in Michigan and Maryland, and her research has been featured in mainstream news outlets across the country. Still, she cringes at the idea of promoting her book — she is happy, though, to promote what’s behind the book.

“Science is slow and tedious, but it’s a really big part of what my life is about,” she says. “My two main aspirations are to elucidate the causes of addiction for general consumption and to take undergraduates on the journey of doing science — the joy, the frustration and the importance of science. I love exploring almost any empirical question, and any student willing to explore science just thrills me.”