Polishing a Diamond in the Rough
David Lovinger Is NIAAA’s New Scientific Director
BY PETER MANZA, NIAAA
In June 2023 NIAAA selected David Lovinger as the institute’s new Scientific Director (SD). Lovinger had been Acting SD since January 1, 2022.
A Senior Investigator and Chief of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience, Lovinger has dedicated his career to studying how actions are learned and controlled by the brain—and how behaviors go awry after chronic substance misuse. He is renowned for identifying key molecular targets of alcohol action in the brain, notably the N-methyl-D-aspartate glutamate receptor, first published in Science in 1989 (Science 243:1721-1724, 1989). Lovinger also has worked extensively to uncover how the endocannabinoid system shapes brain function, publishing key findings in journals such as Nature Neuroscience (Nat Neurosci 5:446–451, 2002) and Neuron (Neuron 96:1112-1126.e5, 2017).
Yet of his many accomplishments—including more than 200 peer-reviewed publications, contributions to numerous books, and honors such as the NIH Director’s Award for research—Lovinger first cited his record of mentoring young scientists.
“I’ve had some amazing graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members,” Lovinger said, referring to the more than 50 trainees he has supervised to date. “That’s really what I’m most proud of.”
Although Lovinger has experience both within the intramural research program (IRP) and extramurally, he ultimately settled into the NIAAA IRP because he sees it as an environment that fosters high-level scientific advances. “You can initiate new research directions nimbly and have the resources to do it. It allows for a lot of creativity,” Lovinger said.
Lovinger served as a professor at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee) prior to joining NIAAA in 2001. He received a bachelor’s from the University of Arizona (Tucson, Arizona) in 1981 and Ph.D. in psychology from Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) in 1987. Lovinger currently sits on the editorial boards of the journals Addiction Biology, Neuropharmacology, Neuropsychopharmacology, and Basal Ganglia and is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Alcohol.
Colleagues at NIAAA are enthusiastic about Lovinger’s appointment. “The program is very fortunate to have recruited such an eminent scientist with many years of experience as an effective leader and as a mentor to junior scientists at all levels,” said Andrew Holmes, chief of the NIAAA Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience.
Lovinger has identified several targets to help NIAAA combat what he sees as the central challenge in alcohol research: identifying new treatments for alcohol-use disorder (AUD). Three medications are approved by the FDA to treat AUD, but there is a need for additional treatment options. As a result, NIAAA is heavily focused on medications development and supporting promising new pharmacotherapies such as semaglutide and spironolactone. Yet Lovinger acknowledged compulsive alcohol use is a “multifaceted” condition that requires a comprehensive approach to improve outcomes. Investigating nonpharmacologic treatments, such as brain stimulation therapy, will be another priority.
“We need new directions of innovative research, with better integration of what we produce,” said Lovinger, citing the enduring challenge of merging preclinical research, which is conducted in animal models such as rodents, with clinical research conducted in humans. Part of this effort necessarily involves developing new models that incorporate important facets of human alcohol use and AUD. He further emphasized the importance of maintaining open dialogue and sharing the latest findings between intramural and extramural researchers. “We have to not only communicate our findings better to scientific audiences but also work on getting more information into our group from the outside.”
The new SD also hopes to expand the institute’s outreach capabilities. NIAAA is tasked with being a knowledge base for the alcohol-research community, providing resources such as Spectrum, a triannual newsletter summarizing the latest advances in research and treatment. Lovinger envisions building this platform outward to reach a wider audience of scientists, clinicians, and the public.
In accordance with the NIH’s mission to diversify the national scientific workforce, Lovinger stressed that inclusion and equity “at all levels” would remain a core principle of NIAAA moving forward.
By focusing on these key areas, Lovinger hopes that others will take notice of what is one of the smaller, but no less mighty, institutes within NIH.
“The NIAAA intramural program is a real diamond in the rough,” said Lovinger. “People from other NIH institutes should look into the research that we’re doing. I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised at the innovation in many areas of research here.”
Peter Manza, a research fellow at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is a contributing writer for The NIH Catalyst.
This page was last updated on Thursday, September 7, 2023