Heath D. Schmidt, PhD
A neuropharmacologist and director of the Laboratory of Neuropsychopharmacology , Dr. Heath D. Schmidt approaches research on drugs of abuse in several ways: to understand drug addiction as a disease of the brain, to develop new pharmacotherapies to treat addiction, and to better understand how the brain works.
Dr. Schmidt also explores how food, especially the Western diet consisting of foods high in sugar and fat, changes the brain to produce aberrant food-seeking behaviors that can lead to obesity.
“Our research investigates how drugs of abuse like cocaine, prescription opioids, and nicotine change the brain to produce addiction-like behaviors.”
- PhD, Boston University School of Medicine , 2007
- BS, George Washington University, 1999
Dr. Schmidt teaches advanced pharmacology and neuroscience courses to undergraduate and graduate students at Penn. The clinical experiences the nursing students share with him in the classroom, including caring for patients with drug addiction, eating disorders, mood disorders and cognitive impairments, helps inform his research.
Dr. Schmidt’s current research into cocaine, prescription opioid, and nicotine addiction, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, focuses on the molecular, biochemical, epigenetic, and behavioral mechanisms underlying drug taking and seeking. Through this research, he is identifying novel neurobiological mechanisms that regulate addiction-like behaviors to understand how chronic exposure to drugs of abuse changes the brain to produce drug-seeking behaviors. This area of research is particularly important to nurses, who occupy the front lines of patient care for those struggling with drug addiction.
Nicotine, Smoking, and Cocaine
In 2015 and 2016, Dr. Schmidt published the results of several studies involving nicotine and cocaine funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death worldwide and current smoking cessation medications have limited efficacy. Dr. Schmidt’s translational study on nicotine, for the first time incorporated his preclinical rat findings with data from human smokers. Both indicated that the repeated use of an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor reduces nicotine reinforcement in rats and smoking behavior in humans. This study provides strong support for larger clinical trials of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors for smoking cessation. Since acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are already approved by the FDA, these findings also suggest that these medications could be re-purposed for preventing smoking relapse.
Additional study results published by Dr. Schmidt and his colleagues identified novel mechanisms that regulate cocaine-taking and cocaine-seeking behaviors in rats. Dr. Schmidt reported that activation of glucagon-like peptide-1 receptors (GLP-1Rs) in the brain reduced voluntary cocaine taking in rats. The provocative findings highlight a new mechanism regulating cocaine taking and suggest that GLP-1R agonists, which are FDA-approved for treating type II diabetes and obesity, could be re-purposed for cocaine dependence.
Opportunities to Learn and Collaborate at Penn Nursing
In his laboratory, Dr. Schmidt has supervised and mentored dozen of research assistants and students. He maintains an open-door office policy for any student interested in research aimed at understanding the brain, drug addiction as a disease of the brain, and improving healthcare.
Selected Career Highlights
- Certificate of Excellence in Reviewing, Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry
- Member, Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, Basic Science Network Advisory Committee
- Member, Molecular and Cellular Cognition Society
- Member, Society for Neuroscience