Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychiatry

College of Medicine

2015 Awardee

Sara Jo Nixon’s research program requires an integration of models and methods from cognitive neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology.  She aims to clarify the underlying processes compromised with substance use/dependence, as well as its psychosocial concomitants.

The result is a body of hypothesis-driven work, adequate to address overarching neurobehavioral mechanisms and key individual variables, such as sex/gender and age.  Nixon’s work has been instrumental in the shift from “endpoint” to “process” measures, in emphasizing the importance of integrated neurobehavioral systems, as opposed to localization models, and in focusing attention on the role of “irrelevancy” and neurobehavioral suppression in alcohol-related deficits.

Nixon has examined the acute effects of moderate doses of alcohol in young and older, healthy, non-problem drinkers.  She found that age and alcohol interact in both laboratory and real-world tasks (i.e. driving skills).  Further research will extend this work, by incorporating neuroimaging, utilizing a wider range of neurobehavioral tasks, and incorporating a broader range of doses and ages.

In another study, she examined whether neurocognitive and emotion processing deficits, frequently observed in detoxified alcoholics, but typically examined separately, are driven by dysregulation in common underlying component processes. Understanding the interrelatedness of these processes will inform the development of more effective treatment protocols.

Nixon has also studied neurobehavioral consequences of nicotine use in alcohol and drug abusers.  She found that acute nicotine administration benefitted cognitive performance and neurophysiology in detoxified alcoholics differently than it did community smokers or those addicted to cocaine.  This research also drew attention to the contrasting effects of acute vs. chronic smoking on brain and behavior.