Meet Dr. J. Leigh Leasure, visiting professor

Dr. J. Leigh Leasure is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston. She's currently on a research sabbatical, for which she's travelled to the University of Victoria to work with Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at UVic's Division of Medical Sciences.

Dr. Leasure's primary research focus is experience-driven neuroplasticity, especially exercise-based brain change. Her expertise is in cognitive and motor assessment in rodent models of brain injury, as well as in-depth analysis of brain tissue using confocal microscopy and unbiased stereology. Her research findings are applicable to the fields of brain health and repair.

We connected with Dr. Leasure to learn more about her.

What does your research focus on, and why did you choose that specialty?

llMy current research focuses on the interactive neural effects of alcohol and exercise, particularly in the female brain. This focus evolved from my long-standing interest in exercise-driven neuroplasticity, especially after brain injury. Much of my research has used rodent models to examine the potential of exercise to heal the brain after it has been damaged by, for example, stroke or TBI (traumatic brain injury). Alcohol, especially binge alcohol, damages the brain, particularly areas important for cognition and self-control. My focus on the female brain stems from a growing body of clinical research indicating that women are more vulnerable than men are to the brain-damaging effects of alcohol. I find this particularly fascinating, because with other types of brain injury (such as stroke or TBI), the female brain appears more resilient than the male.

What’s innovative about your work? What’s been its impact?

There are three unique aspects to my work. First, it focuses on the interactive effects of binge alcohol and exercise on the brain. This is crucial, as exercise is increasingly being used to treat alcohol-use disorders, yet there has been very little research on the interactive neural effects of alcohol and exercise. Second, my research focuses on binge-pattern alcohol intake, which is increasingly common and which may be uniquely capable of harming the brain. Third, my focus is the female brain, as a growing body of research indicates that it may be selectively vulnerable to alcohol-induced damage. Moreover, binge drinking is becoming increasingly common in girls, women, and even older women. Yet most pre-clinical studies of alcohol-induced brain damage have used only male animals.

Starting in September, you’ll be working with Dr. Brian Christie in the Division of Medical Sciences. What are you most looking forward to about that partnership?

Dr. Christie and I have actually been collaborating for years, as we share common interests in brain damage, as well as the neural effects of exercise and/or alcohol. So what I am most looking forward to is working with him in the lab, instead of over the phone or email!

What project will you and Dr. Christie be focused on – that is, what’s the goal for your sabbatical?

My goal is technique-oriented – I am going to learn in vivo electrophysiology. Dr. Christie is an internationally renowned expert in that field, so he is the perfect colleague from which to learn.

What’s something that we’d be surprised to learn about you?

This is perhaps not surprising, given my research focus, but exercise is a big part of my life. I have run a marathon (one was enough for me) and hiked the Inca Trail. Someday, I hope to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Any last words?

I’m not dead yet!