Brendan Walker
Brendan Walker

Washington State University Department of Psychology neuroscience researcher Brendan Walker has been selected to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the highest honor the federal government awards scientists and engineers who have recently initiated independent research careers.

Walker was selected for his work in developing new therapies for alcohol addiction. The Presidential Awards are intended to recognize and nurture some of the finest scientists and engineers who, while early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the twenty-first century.

“This is a tremendous honor,” said Walker. “It is wonderful to see this area of research recognized for its importance at the highest levels.”

Walker’s goal is to develop new drug therapies that will support patient treatment compliance and long-term recovery by focusing on a neuropeptide in the brain known as dynorphin. This peptide is increased by long-term alcohol exposure and appears to produce many of the negative mood states that accompany alcohol withdrawal. By blocking this system, the depression and anxiety that occurs when someone tries to stop drinking alcohol can be reduced, while chances for full recovery are greatly enhanced.

“My work is about learning how to overcome addiction, and fight the tremendous power these substances have over people—especially when it strikes friends, even loved ones,” said Walker, who adds his interest in the treatment of alcohol use disorders stems from his time as a teenager. Many teens started heavily using alcohol and drugs and consequently many of those were unable to escape their grasp.

“It made me question how alcohol or drugs can be so powerful that they make someone give up everything they’ve ever worked for in life, even life itself,” said Walker.

Walker joins a small group of distinguished researchers at WSU who have also received the PECASE. Susmita Bose received the PECASE award in 2002 for her “innovative and multidisciplinary research on bioactive bone implants,” while Davis Bahr received this honor in 2000 for development of a new technique to determine the strength of thin film adhesion.

Walker has recently been promoted to associate professor with tenure in WSU’s Department of Psychology and will receive the award during a special ceremony at the White House next month.