Christopher Pittenger, M.D., Ph.D.
My research is aimed towards a better understanding of a particular network of brain structures, called the basal ganglia, and the consequences of dysfunction of this network in various neuropsychiatric diseases. The basal ganglia are involved both in motor control and in the formation of habits. Abnormalities in this circuit are implicated in a variety of conditions characterized by maladaptive, inflexible behaviors - habits gone bad. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and drug addiction. Our research in the laboratory has two strands. First, we seek to better understand the mechanisms of normal basal ganglia-dependent habit-like learning, by manipulating this circuit in mice and then testing their ability to learn a variety of tasks. Second, we seek to better understand how perturbation of the basal ganglia system can lead to symptoms of psychiatric disease. We do this by recapitulating some of the biology of diseases such as Tourette syndrome, again in mice, and observing the behavioral and neurophysiological consequences. I also direct the Yale OCD Research Clinic, where our research aims towards the better understanding of the biology of obsessive compulsive disorder and the development of new treatments. We have observed that the neurotransmitter glutamate is out of balance in the basal ganglia in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that medications that target glutamate appear to help patients whose disease has not responded to more standard therapies. Ongoing research seeks to better document and understand this perturbation of this neurotransmitter and to explore new glutamate-modulating drugs as potential treatments.