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Francesca Filbey

Francesca Filbey

Bert Moore Chair in BrainHealth

Research Interests: Addiction as a model to understand reward system dysfunction in humans using multimodal brain imaging techniques.


Professional Preparation

Postdoctoral Fellowship - Neuroimaging
National Institute of Mental Health, NIH - 2005
Doctor of Philosophy - Experimental Neuropsychology
Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, University of London - 2002
Master of Science - Applied Cognition and Neuroscience
University of Texas at Dallas - 1997
Bachelor of Arts - Psychology
University of Texas at Arlington - 1995

Research Areas

Research Interests:

In the United States, addictive disorders including substance use disorders and pathological overeating cause an extensive burden in terms of morbidity, mortality, and public health costs, yet treatment strategies are only modestly effective.  Better understanding of the biological mechanisms that underlie addictive disorders and increase susceptibility could substantially improve current prevention and intervention efforts. The overarching goal across my line of translational research is to characterize factors that increase risk for addictive disorders. Specifically, I am interested in how early life factors such as period of exposure (e.g., adolescent onset of regular use) or early life stress mediate the neural mechanisms that are associated with addictive disorders, and how genetic risk moderates these effects.

A translational neuroscience approach.The utility of combining genomic and neuroimaging approaches is becoming increasingly evident.  Neuroimaging provides a neurobiological phenotype that is proximal to the biological function of genetic variation.  Unlike other phenotypes, which may be affected by subjective factors, like reporter bias (e.g., in reporting subjective craving and/or the experience of addictive symptoms), neurobiological phenotypes are less influenced by other variables.  Using more objective phenotypes subsequently helps increase the power to detect the influence of the genetic variation.  In addition, neuroimaging provides a critical link between molecular changes and behavior, which also makes interpreting and translating the effects of genetic variation much more clear.  Over the last several years, I have developed a translational model that links changes at the neural level with changes at the behavioral level (Filbey, et al., 2008; Filbey, Slack, Sunderland, & Cohen, 2006; Filbey, Schacht, Myers, Chavez, & Hutchison, 2009b). The projects below describe how I have taken this approach to fill the knowledge gap on the biobehavioral mechanisms of addictive disorders.

Cue-reactivity in fMRI.  While there has been considerable controversy over the subjective “craving” in humans, the study of the biological mechanisms that underlie the positive reinforcing effects of stimuli in animals and humans has historically been much more straightforward. Previous studies have found that the motivation to use drugs is linked to the mesolimbic and mesocortical dopamine pathways in the brain and is an important factor in the etiology of addiction (Robinson & Berridge, 1993). Despite being less addictive than other substances of abuse, the published behavioral studies of marijuana suggest that craving is a reliable and valid phenomenon with this substance, analogous to craving for other drugs of abuse (e.g.,Haughey, Marshall, Schacht, Louis, & Hutchison, 2008). In the first neuroimaging study of cue-reactivity in marijuana users, I utilized a tactile cue paradigm (i.e., used marijuana pipe vs. pencil) in fMRI in marijuana users (Filbey et al., 2009b).  The imaging results showed that activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate, amygdala, thalamus, insula, nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area (VTA) underlie cue-reactivity in marijuana, and that this pattern was positively correlated with marijuana-related problems.  This is notable, as it demonstrates that the areas of activation for marijuana are similar to other drugs of abuse such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol, and tobacco (for review see Volkow et al., 2006).

In a more recent line of research, I have also been examining cue reactivity in tobacco dependent adults and binge eaters who meet criteria for obesity (BMI>30).  With tobacco smokers, I utilized video cues in an fMRI paradigm to elicit cue-elicited craving (Filbey et al, 2009). Specifically, I compared the BOLD response to smoking video clips with appetitive (e.g., food) video clips and found greater activation during the smoking cues in the bilateral anterior cingulate, right insula, and right superior and middle temporal gyri. Building upon this work, I have also evaluated the use of olfactory cues to determine the most potent modality in eliciting a stronger response within the reward system in smokers.  These analyses are underway.

Regarding obesity, researchers have suggested that aspects of disordered eating share mechanisms that have been previously implicated in addictions, specifically with respect to cue-elicited craving (Sheppard, 1993). People who pathologically overeat, such as binge eaters, report similar clinical symptoms to those that characterize substance addictions including craving, loss of control, impairment of functioning, preoccupation with the substance of choice (e.g., food), and the use of binge eating to regulate emotions and stress (Krahn & Gosnell, 1991). In this project, I examined fMRI BOLD response to food cues among individuals with obesity.  The fMRI paradigm consisted of gustatory presentations of the participant’s preferred high-caloric beverage (e.g., coca cola) and a control taste (i.e, water). When high-caloric beverage exposure was contrasted with water exposure, we found greater activation in several expected areas including the dorsal and ventral striatum, anterior cingulate, inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), and insula (Filbey, 2010).  These preliminary findings suggest a similar pattern of response for binge eaters as those with substance abuse disorders. 

Early life factors.  Early life stress has been found to negatively impact brain structure and function. In addition, studies have shown that the resultant neurobiological changes confer vulnerability for the development of brain disorders, specifically those related to stress such as substance abuse (Hayatbakhsh et al., 2008). However, despite clear links between early life stress and drug abuse, the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie this association remain unknown. We recently found that total score on the Early Life Stress Questionnaire was positively correlated with activation in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) during a cue exposure paradigm with heavy drinking adults. These findings suggest that exposure to early life stress is associated with increased neural response in an important area within the reward system during exposure to alcohol taste cues. This illustrates a possible mechanism by which early stress causes alterations in the dopaminergic system, which may subsequently increase one’s vulnerability to developing substance use disorders.

There is also growing literature suggesting that exposure to substances increases the brain’s sensitivity to their harmful effects. Contrary to the animal literature, the long-term effects of human adolescent substance abuse are not as clearly delineated. Studies have indicated that while other parts of the brain have matured by adolescence (areas controlling language, for example), cognitive control over high-risk behaviors is still maturing during adolescence, making teens more apt to engage in risky behaviors. Also, with the brain's emotion-related areas and connections still maturing, adolescents may additionally be more vulnerable to potential brain assaults that could impact the development of psychological disorders during this time.To examine this, we evaluated the role of early potential age of onset of marijuana use and fMRI BOLD response to marijuana cues.  The results showed a positive correlation between neural activation and age of onset (range = 9 – 22 years of age), such that the earlier the age of onset, the less the response to cues in the mid-frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate gyrus. These findings suggest that exposure to regular marijuana use at an early age (i.e., adolescence) leads to alterations in brain function, particularly in frontal executive control areas.

Genetic risk factors. Basic research on the human genome is progressing at a rapid pace. Twin and adoption studies have indicated that genetic variation accounts for approximately 50% of the variance in substance use disorders (for review see (Dick & Bierut, 2006). With regards to marijuana dependence, the psychoactive substance, cannabinoid-Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), binds to central cannabinoid or CB1 receptors, which are widely distributed in the brain (Matsuda, Lolait, Brownstein, Young, & Bonner, 1990).  Subsequently, the logical candidate genes are those that regulate the cannabinoid system. I recently reported the first neuroimaging study of the genetic factors that impact the neurobiological processes in marijuana dependence. In this study, I examined the modulatory effects of both the cannabinoid receptor 1 (CNR1) and fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) genotypes on neural response to marijuana cues. I found that the CNR1 and FAAH each moderated neural response to cues in reward areas of the brain, with an interactive effect between the two SNPs, such that the greater the number of risk alleles, the greater the neural response in reward areas (Filbey, Schacht, Myers, Chavez, & Hutchison, 2009a). In sum, these findings provide evidence for the strong influence of cannabinoid system modulating genes in moderating sensitivity to the effects of marijuana.  I plan to extend this work to my tobacco using and binge eating samples.

In conclusion,I believe that my research is important since the determination of intermediate phenotypes on the path to brain disorders such as addictive disorders is a necessity if we are to determine those at risk, develop treatments designed to prevent the development of the disease, and apply them safely, economically and expeditiously.


Filbey, F.M. and Dunlop, J. (under review). Degree of neural reward network disconnectivity is an indicator of cannabis use severity. forthcoming - Publication
Beaton, D., Abdi, H., Filbey, F.M. (under review). Unique aspects of impulsivity in self-regulatory failures: Specific contributions of common assessments of impulsivity. forthcoming - Publication
DeWitt, S., Dunlop, J., Filbey, F.M. (under review). Adolescent risk-taking and resting state functional connectivity. forthcoming - Publication
Liu, P., Lu, H., Filbey, F.M., Pinkham, A.E.,McAdams, C.J., Adionff, B., Daliparthi, V., and Cao, Y. (under review). Automatic and reproducible positioning of phase-contrast MRI for the quantification of global cerebral blood flow. forthcoming - Publication
Barnes, J.C. and Filbey, F.M. (under revision). Are cigarettes a gateway Drug? An instrumental variables analysis of the impact of adolescent cigarette smoking on marijuana use in adolescence and adulthood. forthcoming - Publication
Ketcherside, A., Matthews, I., Filbey, F. (2013). The Serotonin Link between Alcohol Use and Affective Disorders. Journal of Addiction and Prevention. In Press. 2013 - Publication
Filbey, F.M., Dunlop, J., and Myers, U.M. (2013). Neural response differences during positive and negative incentives in marijuana users in withdrawal. PLoS One. 8(5): e61470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061470. 2013 - Publication
Claus, E.D., Blaine, S., Filbey, F.M., Mayer, A., Hutchison, K. (2013) Effects of cigarette use and a CHRNA3 polymorphism on BOLD responses after Exposure to smoking cues. Neuropsychopharmacology. In Press. 2013 - Publication


Associate Professor
University of Texas at Dallas [2014–Present]
Assistant Professor
University of Texas at Dallas [2010–2014]
Assistant Professor of Translational Neuroscience
The Mind Research Network [2007–2010]
Research Assistant Professor
University of New Mexico [2007–2010]
Honorary Researcher
Institute of Psychiatry [2007–Present]
Research Assistant Professor
University of Colorado, Boulder [2005–2007]
Postdoctoral Fellowship
National Institute of Mental Health [2002–2005]
Research Assistant
Institute of Psychiatry University of London [1998–2000]
Research Assistant
Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center [1995–1998]

Additional Information

Recognition and Awards

2010    NIDA “Frontiers in Addiction Research” Travel Award
             NIDA CPDD Travel Award
             UCLA Advanced NeuroImaging Training Program Fellowship

2009    NIDA “Frontiers in Addiction Research” Travel Award

2008    The International Society of Psychiatric Genetics Travel Award

2007    Research Society on Alcoholism Junior Investigator Meeting Award
             Enoch Gordis Award Finalist

2006    NIDA Research Training Institute Award

2004    International Conference on Biomagnetism Young Investigator Award

2002    Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience McDonnell Foundation Fellowship

2001    NIMH Postdoctoral Intramural Research Training Award 

2000    World Congress on Schizophrenia Research Young Scientist Award
             International Congress on Psychiatric Genetics Scholarship
Travel Grant Award

1998    Psychological Medicine Graduate Program Scholarship

1997    Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center Performance Award

Active Grant Funding
  • 2007 - 2012           KO1 DA021632-01A1
    “The Effects of CNR1 on Brain Function in Cannabis Users”
    Role: PI
  • 2010 – 2011          DOE Pilot Project Grant
    “The trajectory of the neurodevelopmental impact of adolescent-onset marijuana abuse”
    Role:  PI
  • 2007 – 2012          RO1 AA017390-01 (PI: Angela Bryan)
    “HIV prevention with adolescents: Neurocognitive deficits and treatment response”
    Role: Co-PI
  • 2009 – 2014          RO1 DA025074-01A210 (PI: Kent Hutchison)
    “Effectiveness of Varenicline: Testing Individual Differences”
    Role: Co-PI
  • 2009 – 2011          R21 DA027626-0109 (PI: Jingyu Liu)
    “A multilevel vulnerability study of substance abuse via CNV, brain activation and behaviors”
    Role: Co-PI
  • 2010 – 2011          RO3 DA27892-01 (PI: Feldstein Ewing)
    “Adolescent response to psychotherapy: The role of neuronal networks”
    Role: Co-PI
Pending Grant Applications as PI

1R01DA030344-01 “Genetic and environmental modulators of the brain’s response to marijuana cues”

  • NIH 5 years $2,062,750
  • Submitted February 2010 / Earliest start date: 12/1/2010

1DP2OD007082-01  “Using multivariate pattern recognition to predict vulnerability to substance abuse”

  • NIH 5 years $2,449,800
  • Submitted Oct 2009 / Earliest start date: 9/30/2010

1R01DK089105-01 “Imaging evidence for an overlapping neurocognitive model of obesity and drug addiction”         

  • NIH 5 years $2,686,862
  • Submitted Oct 2009 / Earliest start date: 9/30/2010

1RO1XXXXXXXX “(Sub-Award: Haughey) A Multi-Level Translational Approach to Medications Development for the Treatment of Cannabis-Related Disorders”

  • NIH 5 years $898,671
  • Submitted April 2010 / Earliest start date: 9/1/2010

News Articles

Researcher Awarded $1.9 Million to Study Addiction
Researcher Awarded $1.9 Million to Study Addiction A UT Dallas researcher has been awarded $1.9 million to support her studies of genetic and environmental factors related to marijuana addiction. Dr. Francesca Filbey, assistant professor at theCenter for BrainHealthin theSchool of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, received the funding from the part of the As part of the study, more than 100 research participants will undergo brain imaging while being presented with drug-use related cues, such as paraphernalia, to examine the neural mechanisms of craving. Participants will also be psychologically evaluated to identify environmental stressors that are risk factors for marijuana dependence. Dr. Filbey’s research seeks to illuminate how early life experiences can interact with and change an individual’s genetic makeup to produce brain changes that lead to marijuana dependence.
Researcher Feels Driven to Understand Addiction
Researcher Feels Driven to Understand Addiction Addiction – to gambling, to alcohol, to food, to any compulsive human behavior without regard to consequences – can ruin lives. Dr. Francesca Filbey, a new researcher in the Center for BrainHealth and an assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is an expert on the subject who wants to learn still more. “I hope to be able to reveal the interactions between genetic and environmental factors that lead to addiction,” she said about her research. Dr. Filbey, who graduated from King's College in London and arrived at her Dallas research base via the University of New Mexico’s Mind Research Network, says today’s research is buoyed by technological innovations that are illuminating once-hidden pieces of addiction puzzles.
Study Connects Chronic Cannabis Use to Oxygen Changes in Brain
Study Connects Chronic Cannabis Use to Oxygen Changes in Brain New research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas reveals that levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that leaves a euphoric feeling, directly correlate to changes in how the brain utilizes oxygen. 
Dr. Francesca Filbey
, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, led the team that found chronic cannabis users have higher cerebral blood flow and extract more oxygen from brain blood flow than nonusers. The rate at which oxygen is metabolized in the brain was found to be higher in users as well. 
How Early Marijuana Use Affects Brain Development Becomes Clearer
How Early Marijuana Use Affects Brain Development Becomes Clearer The age at which an adolescent begins using marijuana may affect typical brain development, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas.
In a paper recently published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists describe how marijuana use and the age at which the use starts, may adversely alter brain structures that govern higher order thinking.
Marijuana Brain Study Offers New Substance by Including Nicotine Use
Until recently, marijuana research largely excluded tobacco users from its participant pool. But scientists at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas have found reason to include them, uncovering significant differences in the brains of those who use both substances and marijuana-only users.
In a study that appears online in Behavioural Brain Research, scientists found that the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning, is significantly smaller in users of both substances than in nonusers and nicotine-only users. Also, the number of cigarettes smoked daily by users of both substances was connected to the severity of their hippocampal shrinkage, and, unexpectedly, the smaller their hippocampus, the greater their memory function. 


Current Memberships to Professional Societies

American College of Neuropsychopharmacology

College on Problems of Drug Dependence

Human Brain Mapping

Society for Neuroscience

Cognitive Neuroscience Society

Society for Behavioral Medicine

Research Society for Alcoholism