PAGE 3 OF 6
The idea that pharmacologic agents can alter brain plasticity, thereby mediating fear extinction, is no longer novel. Ressler's team is experimenting with other mediators of synaptic strength. In the July 2006 Nature Neuroscience, they reported that activation of the receptor for brain-derived neurotrophic factor is essential for extinguishing fear. His group has also determined that the protein β-catenin is essential for stabilizing synapses and forming fear memories, findings they reported in Nature Neuroscience in 2008.
In Ressler's neuroscience lab at Emory, nine graduate students and postdocs study fear with tools including small molecules and viral vectors that deliver modified genes to specific brain regions in transgenic mice. By observing how mice react to environmental cues, such as a sudden noise or an elevated maze, researchers can tell whether genetic modifications have changed how animals handle fear. Meanwhile, at Grady Hospital, Ressler leads a massive search for genetic polymorphisms, or variations, that might predict which individuals who were abused as children will be especially vulnerable to PTSD as adults—and which ones will prove resilient.
Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, Ressler had no clue he would become a behavioral neuroscientist with a social conscience. He certainly never thought Nobel laureates would know his name.
Ressler is an only child whose parents divorced when he was young. When he was 12, he and his mother relocated from Jackson to Ocean Springs, a small town between Biloxi and Pascagoula. “It was a wonderful place: you could bike to the Gulf and crab and fish and go canoeing in the bayou,” Ressler recalls with delight. Ocean Springs schools were also better than most in Mississippi.
When puberty hit, Ressler scored the geek trifecta. He had no gift for sports, he played tuba in the high school band, and he excelled at math and computers. About this time, his mother quit her office job to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. “We both worked part-time to get her through college,” Ressler recalls. Some nights he helped her clean the doctors' offices where she did desk work during the day. Finances eased when she graduated, got a nursing job, and remarried.
In the 1970s, “you could not grow up in Mississippi and not be extraordinarily aware of race,” Ressler says about his childhood. But his mother taught him that “people are often different because of what life has dealt them, not because of different abilities.” His mother's lessons helped him at Grady Hospital, where patients have experienced oceans of disrespect.
“Using a lot of jargon and big words just doesn't work around here,” says Grady chief psychologist and Emory psychiatry professor Nadine Kaslow, who supervised Ressler when he was a first-year resident in the hospital. From the start, Ressler had a knack for connecting with people of all descriptions: “Female patients see him as not sexist; male patients see him as someone they can bond with,” says Kaslow.
Besides his mother, the other influential woman in Ressler's young life was his advanced placement math teacher, who encouraged him to excel in mathematics competitions and to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).