Briana Renda Spotlight: The Epidemic of Vaping

Posted on Friday, May 7th, 2021

Written by Eliana Brereton

PhD student Briana Renda in the Murray Addiction, Interoception, and Motivation (AIM) Lab.

The practice of vaping is escalating at an alarming rate among adolescents and young adults. Appealing flavours, discreet devices and 'smoke tricks' have contributed to its rise in popularity among youth. What is concerning, is the ‘juice’ that produces the vapour to be inhaled by the user often contains nicotine, a highly addictive chemical that can be harmful in the development of the adolescent brain. However, little has been published on the long-term health effects of vaping.

Briana Renda, a PhD student and animal researcher in the Department of Psychology, has come up with an innovative approach to explore the epidemic of teen vaping and the impact of nicotine and stress during the pandemic on the adolescent brain. Briana plans to model exposure to e-cigarette vapours in rodents to better understand the immediate and long-term effects of nicotine vaping during adolescence on behaviour and stress response.

Briana was a finalist in the 2021 CSAHS 3-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and was winner of the CSAHS People's Choice Award. I had the opportunity to sit down with Briana and ask her about her research.

How would you explain your research to someone who wasn't in your program or hadn't heard of it?

Basically, I'm interested in understanding how different experiences during development, particularly during adolescence, can have immediate and long-lasting effects. Some of the things that I've researched so far are how nicotine exposure during adolescence affects adult nicotine consumption, stress exposure in adolescents and the combination of both nicotine and stress exposure.

Currently, I'm looking at the hormonal response to stress. In humans we have cortisol that's released as a stress hormone, and I’m measuring the equivalent of that in rodents. The purpose is to see what impact, if any, repeated nicotine, stress exposure or the combination of the two has on the stress response over time.

Following this, I hope to move on to a pain model to look at a different type of stressor. For example, how does chronic pain during development affect you throughout the long-term.

I think your research is so valuable and I think it's really important. There's so much unknown about vaping right now and yet so many young ones vape.

Thank you. I have young cousins in high school now and I’ve talked to them about vaping. It's so prevalent. Now that we're gathering quantitative data of how many people are using vaporizers, it's alarming and really an important topic to be exploring.

Is there anything that you wish your colleagues, friends or family knew about your research and what it's like to be a grad student?

As an animal researcher, I don't think a lot of people understand animal research and the study of animals for scientific discovery. There seems to be quite a negative view of animal research. Researchers must go through many rounds of approval for ethics before a study can be conducted. Most of the people that work with animals, and that I work with, care so much about the animals.

The other thing is that graduate school is hard. It's a constant job. You have so many different roles that you're playing. You're in the lab doing research, but you're also working as a teaching assistant, possibly teaching some courses and taking classes yourself. On top of that, you're competing for funding and participating in outreach activities. A lot of the time, people that aren't in academia don't see that. They think you're doing all these wonderful things, and we are, but it is difficult.

Why is your research important to you?

Before the pandemic started, I was seeing this increase in nicotine use in adolescents. I initially felt it was important to try and understand the effects. With vaporizers, we're getting rid of all the extra components in cigarettes that we know are harmful for us, but users are still consuming nicotine, which is the main addictive component found in cigarettes. Sometimes vaporizers can actually contain much higher levels of nicotine than a typical cigarette, and we still don’t know enough about the negative long-term effects of nicotine. It is concerning to think about so many adolescents using these types of products.

With the pandemic, we're also seeing such an increase in stress and mental health issues among these young individuals. There is already a little bit of research out there that shows the interaction between nicotine and stress, but I'm trying to understand what the long-term implications are.

I'm a big proponent of prevention methods instead of a reactive, Band-Aid approach. I'm really trying to figure out what we can do now to possibly help this from getting further out of control. These adolescents that are just experimenting with nicotine now are also stressed, and I want to help prevent them from having this lifelong addiction that is extremely difficult to quit.

Is there anything that you hope to do with your degree after you graduate?

I guess the good thing is there are lots of different options. I really love engaging in research, so I will likely continue working in some sort of research capacity. I also really enjoy being able to explain the research that I’m doing with other people. Science is, unfortunately, hard for the general population to get their hands on. The translation of what we're doing in our labs and how it addresses ‘real world issues’ is critical. Engaging in research activities that enables the use of the research is so important – just get that information out there.

How do you feel about winning this year's People's Choice Award at the Three Minute Thesis Competition?

(laugh) Awesome! It was cool to see how many people voted and viewed the videos online. It's great to be able to share my research and see that it has value and impact and that people actually care! It's so nice when people enjoy your research that you spend so much time on. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to have participated.

I'm glad to hear that! You deserve it. Thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today.

No problem! Thank you for having me.

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