Nicole Zabik wins NIH training grant for work in TNP2 lab

A version of this article first appeared on the School of Medicine website.

Nicole Zabik

Nicole Zabik received the F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Mental Health. She will use it for her project, “Neural and Behavioral Mechanisms of Avoidance Behavior and its Impact on Fear Extinction in Adults with PTSD.” She works as a graduate research assistant in the Translational Neuropsychopharmacology Lab, led by mentor Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice Christine Rabinak, Ph.D.

Zabik’s first training grant will run through 2023.

“It definitely feels surreal. I received the grant after only the first submission, which is not common. However, I am also extremely proud of myself because I worked very efficiently over the four months of writing it and coordinated multiple faculty members for the project, something I had never done before,” she said.

“Avoiding trauma reminders is a cyclical issue in post-traumatic stress disorder. It prevents people from recovering from a significant trauma and engaging in effective therapy modalities,” Zabik said. “This project’s goal is to understand what is going on in the brain and the body during trauma reminders. Ultimately, this will help us understand what prevents people from having long-lasting benefits from therapy.”

Although similar work has been conducted in healthy adults, it has never been applied to trauma-exposed adults, including individuals who suffer significantly from avoidance tendencies.

Avoidance is one of four symptoms of PTSD.

A large majority of translational/clinical research focuses on one symptom category, but PTSD is a complex disorder. “There are literally more than 1,000 ways to be diagnosed,” Zabik said. “This project is interesting to me because it steps outside of the typical focus of translational PTSD research and aims to identify the impact of another symptom on brain and behavior.”

Avoidance is also prevalent in anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance use disorder. “Therefore, whatever we learn from the project's data has the capacity to help other individuals with mental health disorders. These findings will be useful for more than just those with PTSD,” she added. “Putting this grant together has truly made me appreciate the complexity of it, and also how important it is for researchers and clinicians to have communication. The brain is really cool, and humans in general are very complex. Trying to devise a paradigm for people to engage with to pinpoint this behavior/symptom was the biggest game of logic/chess."

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