Pint of Science – Understanding Addiction


On Tuesday 19th May, Professor Lindy Holden-Dye of the Southampton Neuroscience Group and Dr Julia Sinclair of the Wessex Alcohol Research Collaborative will be at the The Red Lion speaking about the effects of alcohol on the brains of worms and human beings.

Unfortunately, this event is now sold out, but you can find out more about their important work here. Professor Lindy Holden-Dye works in looking at funamental aspects of neural signalling – how one neuron communicates with another, with relation to how changes in environment can affect behaviour. Her research looks at a type of roundworm called C elegans, which is about 1mm in length and has only 302 brain cells, much simpler than the thousands of brain cells of, for example, a snail. She explains why this is ideal: “From a neuroscientist’s point of view, the best thing about it is that the ‘wiring diagram’ for this orgranism’s nervous system has been completely elucidated; we know which neurons are implicated in behaviours.” In the lab, she and her colleagues develop different models for studying behaviour. In particular, they can be treated chronically with alcohol, and then washed clean of it to induce a withdrawal syndrome, whereupon they start to behave abnormally.

The reasoning for studying these worms is that if you want to understand human behaviour and disease, Lindy says, you need to understand what’s happening in the connectivity between nerve cells, at the synapses, and a lot of what we know about this in mammals comes from studying worms. She explains that we don’t understand well how some drugs, even some commonly used ones, actually work in terms of the circuit – we understand at a molecular level how they interact, but not what effect that has on the circuit function. With C elegans, it is possible to go from gene, to molecule, to synapse, to circuit, to behaviour – and this is what her team have been trying to do with studying the effect of alcohol on these worms.

Visual representation of the C elegans model
Visual representation of the C elegans model

Lindy did her undergraduate degree in physiology at Cardiff University, where there was a particular emphasis on neurophysiology. Having always loved science at school, but, she says, without very good careers advice for science – she was “told she could be a doctor, a nurse, or something like that” – she originally wanted to do medicine, but during her degree discovered it was the science she loved, and went on to do a masters, and a PhD in neuropharmacology of dopamine receptors in mammalian brains. She says “I had to go to the abattoir once a month to collect pig’s brains – I became a vegetarian for a while after that!”

Lindy also works to raise awareness of neuroscience and mental health issues, feeling that it’s important that people appreciate the difficulties in managing mental health in the community, and in reducing stigma. Some of this work she does alongside Dr Julia Sinclair and the Wessex Alcohol Research Collaborative. Dr Sinclair is a clinical academic, a medical doctor working in addiction psychiatry and dividing her time between research and teaching, and treating patients. Describing how she got into the field, she says that she trained as a medical doctor, specialized in psychiatry, and later working towards a DPhil did a lot of research based in suicide, finding that many of the pathways were through alcohol. Wanting to know more and see how this could be helped, she moved into alcohol research.

The Wessex Alcohol Research Collaborative (WARC) came about when Julia came to Southampton. She explains “One problem with alcohol research is that unless you work in an addiction centre, people know about alcohol as part of their wider portfolio – neuroscientists, oncologists, specialists in diabetes, liver function, and so on – people have interests for different reasons, but none of them are ‘alcohol experts’, so you need to bring people together from all the different disciplines.” She says her work is about getting people to become “alcohol health literate”, because as a population we are at a great health risk because of alcohol. As consumers, Julia explains, we need to know when we are controlling it, and when it is controlling us.

Professor Lindy Holden-Dye and Dr Julia Sinclair will be talking at the Red Lion on Southampton High St on Tuesday 19th May. Lindy also runs a module in the Curriculum Innovation Programme called “The Human Brain and Society” which is open to all students at Southampton University.



Physics student and regular freelance science communicator, shooting for the stars. I'm your Science Editor and with the help of a team of talented writers, strive to bring you the most interesting and relevant science stories.

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