Awardee Spotlight: Sarah Thomas, PhD

Sarah Thomas, PhD, is the recipient of a K23 from NIDA for her research on adolescent cannabis use.

Congratulations, Dr. Thomas! Sarah Thomas, PhD, a 2018 Advance-CTR Mentored Research Award Scholar, recently received a K23 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse for her research on adolescent cannabis use.

"Cognitive Flexibility and Reward Motivation in Adolescent Cannabis Use: An Investigation of Neurobehavioral Mechanisms and Intrinsic Resting State Connectivity" (NIDA, K23)

The Study

My research program investigates predictors and consequences of risky behaviors in adolescence, with an emphasis on substance use. Specifically, I am interested in factors that impact adolescents' decision-making, and how this in turn relates to how adolescents decide what strategy to use while pursuing a reward, and how much effort they will put forth to receive a reward. I have been particularly interested in understanding these domains in the context of adolescent cannabis use, given that frequent cannabis use during the time period when adolescents brains are developing may result in altered trajectories related to how adolescents think, make decisions, and pursue goals related to education and work. 

From Advance-CTR to K Award

My K23 project is an extension of my CTR Mentored Research Award (MRA). Because of the pilot and feasibility data I was able to collect through the MRA, in which I tested the K23 protocol in a small sample of female adolescents ages 14-15, I will be able to run a larger study with males and females ages 14-17 to assess how reward-related decision-making differs between adolescents who use cannabis and adolescents who do not use cannabis. Further, the K23 provides opportunities for training, including working with a large dataset on adolescent brain development and substance use while I collect my own data. I was able to start familiarizing myself with that dataset during the CTR MRA, which puts me in an excellent position to generate publications on that data within my first year on the K23.

Through my Advance-CTR award, I was able to attend grant workshops that helped me better convey my message about my proposed K23 project. The award also provided the funding to attend conferences. I was able to attend my mentors' lab meetings and learn about other researchers at Brown and elsewhere whose work has relevance to my research questions. Working on this research project created opportunities to get to know other neuroimaging researchers at Brown and to learn about methodological techniques I wasn't yet aware of. Lastly, the MRA provided the protected time for training, and even opportunities, for me to learn new analytic strategies. For example, I attended in Spring 2020 the CTR-sponsored course on R, which provided a solid foundation for me to attend an NIH course on working with their large, publicly available dataset, much of which requires knowledge of R to access and use the data. 

“ Rhode Island has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in general, and among adolescents in particular ... my goal is to disseminate my research findings to the RI community so adolescents and parents can make their own informed decisions about cannabis use.    ”

Addressing Health in RI 

Rhode Island has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in general, and among adolescents in particular. My hope is that my research will help elucidate what form of cannabis adolescents are using (e.g., edibles, smoking, vaping), under what circumstances they are using, and how it is related to their decision-making. This will inform what is known about why the likelihood of addiction is greater when cannabis use is initiated in adolescence, and also has implications for understanding if adolescents transition to other drugs of abuse that have different, maladaptive consequences (e.g., opioids). Because adolescents' perceptions of the harm of using cannabis is related to whether or not they use cannabis, my goal is also to be able to disseminate my own and other research findings to the RI community so adolescents and parents can make their own informed decisions about cannabis use.