Barbara Sorg studied functions of the brain for years before she saw the tiny nets in her microscope that made her heart skip a beat. She had been exploring different aspects of the brain to find connections between memory and addictive behaviors, and those nets were just too intriguing to leave alone. Since the 8th grade Dr. Sorg has lived for these kinds of moments – discovering something new that could increase our understanding of the world.

Barbara Sorg in her WSU Vancouver lab.
Barbara Sorg in her WSU Vancouver lab.


“The thing about nature is everything is there for a reason,” said Dr. Sorg, a professor of neuroscience at WSU Vancouver. “I saw those nets and wanted to know why they were there. Those types of basic biological questions have always interested me.”

Exploring memory and addiction
In addition to fulfilling her own curiosity, Dr. Sorg’s dedication to exploring the microscopic world that controls our thoughts and behaviors is an integral part of our societal ecosystem, opening doors to treatments that improve quality of life and adding knowledge that can influence important policy and processes.

Her investigation of why the microscopic nets exist and how they function, for example, has led to a better understanding of how memories influence drug addiction. Drug use creates very powerful memories, which is thought to be a leading reason users continue to take a drug even among other negative side effects. Dr. Sorg and her colleagues are exploring ways to target these nets in order to decrease the emotional weight of memories associated with addiction; work that could eventually lead to a treatment option for drug addicts.

Brain Nets Photo Sorg
A scientific and artistic representation of tiny nets in our brains that impact memory. The background image is a micrograph of the nets taken in Dr. Sorg’s lab.

 

From the lab to court room
This fall Dr. Sorg is going to expand the potential impact of her research even further by heading from the lab to the Clark County court system.

“I’ve spent years being fascinated by molecules,” Dr. Sorg said, “I figured its time to bring my knowledge to the human condition.”

Instead of questions about biology, she will now be asking how neuroscience can impact policy making. For four months Dr. Sorg will spend 20 to 25 percent of her time in the Clark County court system, a semester of leave that will allow her to see the people impacted by addiction, and the systems that have the power to impact how we address addiction. Working with a point person at Clark County, her time will be spent in court cases related to addiction, and possibly sitting on a board.

Dr. Sorg’s foray into the criminal justice system is not the first time neuroscience and law have intersected. In fact, there are whole centers devoted to the two disciplines, including a MacArthur Foundation research network that focuses on investigating the mental states of court decision makers and participants, and has Alan Alda as its spokesperson. While Dr. Sorg’s research is not directly related to those areas, addiction is a phenomenon that contributes to societal challenges including incarceration rates and homelessness.

“People have told me it is an eye-opening experience to get out of the ivory tower,” Sorg said. “I’m looking forward to gaining a new perspective.”

Many WSU faculty and extension specialists across the state conduct outreach and community engagement like Dr. Sorg will experience this fall. It takes an ecosystem of people playing different roles to solve complex problems related to quality of life and health. Research and development are major players in that ecosystem – not just because of the discoveries and technology advances that result, but because of the knowledge scientists impart that can impact civic and human rights initiatives. Universities, and especially land-grants like WSU, have played that role for centuries, and will for more to come.

Dr. Sorg is speaking at the Technology Alliance Discovery Series on February 12 in Seattle.