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Brain Health & Plasticity Lab - Dr. J. Leigh Leasure


About the lab

Brain on Exercise

Our research is on neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change itself. Far from being static, the adult brain is exquisitely capable of responding to even the subtlest changes in behavior or the environment. The brain-changing behaviors that we focus on are exercise and binge alcohol intake. Exercise promotes brain health and optimal development. In contrast, binge alcohol damages the brain and alters the course of its development. We use rodent models of binge alcohol exposure and voluntary exercise to better understand how binge alcohol damages the brain, and how exercise heals it. We focus on the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, because both of these regions are vulnerable to alcohol damage and receptive to exercise-driven plasticity. Importantly, both are also involved in behavioral control, emotion and memory.

Our current projects include:

Alcohol, Exercise & the Female Brain

Compared to men, women are more vulnerable to negative health effects of alcohol, including organ damage. It remains unclear whether this vulnerability extends to the brain. Alcohol-induced brain damage compromises decision-making, which in turn is thought to perpetuate addiction. It is therefore important to determine whether the brain effects of alcohol are sex-dependent, as this would underscore the need for gender-based prevention and treatment strategies for alcohol use disorders. We are therefore investigating sex-dependent effects of binge alcohol on brain and behavior in a rat model, as well as mechanisms underlying exercise-driven brain repair.

The Positive Relationship Between Exercise and Alcohol Intake

Binge alcohol damages the brain. In contrast, exercise promotes brain health and plasticity. While it may seem counterintuitive, multiple studies indicate that physically active people also drink alcohol. In collaboration with Dr. Clayton Neighbors at the University of Houston and Dr. Craig Henderson at Sam Houston State University, we are investigating the reasons behind this surprising relationship, focusing on joint motives underlying exercise and alcohol intake.

Shaping the adult brain with exercise during development

Exercise supports the health and function of brain cells, thereby supporting optimal cognition and stress resilience. Early life experience influences brain development and exercise during development represents a positive experience with the potential to shape an adult brain that can respond optimally to life’s challenges. Children and adolescents in Western society are increasingly sedentary, with unknown consequences for brain health and function in adulthood. We study the beneficial effects of developmental exercise on brain structure and function in adult rats.

Munc 13-1 Heterozygosity: Effects on Alcohol Intoxication and Intake

Among the many pharmacological effects of alcohol is its suppressive effect on glutamate transmission. The presynaptic protein Munc 13-1, which is involved in glutamate signaling, may therefore be a potential therapeutic target to treat alcohol use disorder. In collaboration with Dr. Joydip Das at the University of Houston and Dr. Gregg Roman at the University of Mississippi we are quantifying alcohol consumption and intoxication behaviors in a strain of mouse with decreased expression of Munc 13-1. In addition, we are quantifying hippocampal neurogenesis and expression of glutamate receptors in these mice, before and after alcohol exposure.


J. Leigh Leasure, PI
Research Team