Kristen R. Breit

Kristen Breit
  • Assistant Professor of Biopsychology

    Ph.D., Purdue University

    Office room number: Wayne Hall 511

    Office phone number: TBD

    Preferred means of contact: Email KBreit@wcupa.edu

  • Website

Office Hours Spring 2021

  • Wednesdays 2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.
  • Fridays 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

 

Courses Typically Taught

 

  • Introduction to Biological Psychology
  • Biological Psychology Lab
  • Drugs, Behavior, and the Brain
  • Psychology of Learning
  • Biopsychology Seminar

Description of Research Interests

I am a biopsychologist who researches the effects of drug exposure on the developing brain, as well as how early exposure may alter later-life behavior.

 Representative Publications

Breit, K. R., Rodriguez, C., Lei, A., & Thomas, J. D. (2020). Combined vapor exposure to THC and alcohol in pregnant rats: Maternal outcomes and pharmacokinetic effects. bioRxiv.

Breit, K. R., Zamudio, B. & Thomas, J. D. (2019). Altered motor development following late gestational alcohol and cannabinoid exposure in rats. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 73, 31-41. doi: 10.1016/ntt.2019.03.005

Breit, K. R., Zamudio, B. & Thomas, J. D. (2019). The effects of alcohol and cannabinoid exposure during the brain growth spurt on behavioral development in rats [special issue]. Birth Defects Research, 111(12), 760-774. doi: 10.1002/bdr2.1487

*Awarded the James G. Wilson Publication Award by the Society for Birth Defects Research & Prevention

Idrus, N. M., Breit, K. R., & Thomas, J. D. (2017). Dietary choline levels modify the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure in rats. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 59, 43-52. doi: 10.1016/ntt.2016.11.007

Breit, K. R., & Chester, J. A. (2016). Effects of chronic stress on alcohol reward- and anxiety-related behavior in high and low alcohol preferring mice. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 40, 482–490. doi: 10.1111/acer.12992

Powers, M. S., Breit, K. R., & Chester, J. A. (2015). Genetic versus pharmacological assessment of the role of cannabinoid type 2 receptors in alcohol reward‐related behaviors. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(12), 2438-2446. doi: 10.1111/acer.12894

Teaching Philosophy

Although Psychology courses with a Biology component can be overwhelming to both undergraduate and graduate students, courses such as these are vitally important to students’ understanding of Psychology as a whole. In order to ease student concerns and make the course material seem less overwhelming, I try to make the classroom a welcoming and enriching environment by encouraging

questions and open discussion. In addition, I strive to make course material less daunting by highlighting the relationships between topics rather than asking students to treat each topic as its own separate entity. In classes such as Biological Psychology, I always emphasize the importance of understanding how areas of the brain work together to influence behavior, rather than having students only practice rote memorization of each area and their individual roles. My teaching approach includes facilitating such learning in the classroom by asking multi-perspective questions, providing real-life examples to discuss, encouraging students to generate their own questions, as well as try to answer each other’s questions based on the material learned in class. I have found that this approach not only helps students understand the material more clearly, but also maintains student engagement, and promotes student involvement in outside research opportunities by encouraging their curiosity about a wide range of Psychology topics.

My teaching philosophy is further reflected in my design for lecture, homework, quiz, and exam material. For quizzes and exams, I may use multiple choice questions to examine basic understanding, but essay questions and/or diagrams are far more telling regarding a student’s understanding of the material. A short essay question design allows me to see which aspects of the concept the student has grasped versus which aspects they are still struggling with, allowing for a more individualized learning experience. I have used this approach in classes of both large and small populations; while it is more feasible in smaller classes, I believe all students deserve a chance to excel, and some may require more explanation to truly understand the material than others.

As a mentor and instructor, I am also committed to promoting diversity. I greatly recognize that students from under-represented groups are presented with a variety of barriers in pursuing higher education, including (but not limited to) discrimination at school and in research facilities, bias in application reviews, and financial constraints for attending research conferences and applying to graduate programs. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring students in both the classroom and laboratory, and value the opportunity to work closely with them and help foster their interests.

In addition to teaching University students, I also enjoy and have experience teaching scientific topics to lay audiences with limited science backgrounds. For example, I have been an invited speaker at local community colleges where I discussed current science-related issues to their students and faculty. I have also taught courses through the Osher Life-long Learning Institute (OLLI) to groups of retired individuals interested in continuing their education in a wide range of science-related topics. I believe that the ability to communicate to a wide range of audiences is critical for scientific advancement of any topic.

More Detailed Description of Research Interests

My current research focuses on how prenatal exposure to drugs may alter brain and behavioral development throughout the lifespan. I am particularly interested in the effects of prenatal polydrug exposure to alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, and electronic cigarettes.

 

Prenatal alcohol exposure can disrupt physical, neurological, and behavioral development, leading to a range of outcomes known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Individuals with FASD may exhibit impairments in a number of behavioral/cognitive domains, including learning, attention, executive functioning, emotional regulation, social interactions, motor coordination, and impulse control, which can lead to serious problems in school and daily life. FASD pose a global health

concern, as approximately 1 in 10 women report some alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and prevalence rates of FASD in the U.S. range from 1-5%.

However, women may consume other drugs besides alcohol during pregnancy. Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among pregnant women, with prevalence rates estimated between 3-10%. This is because cannabis use during pregnancy is perceived as safe; in fact, many pregnant women purposefully take cannabis products for pregnancy-related illness such as nausea even though cannabis may actually make these symptoms worse. Unfortunately, the risks of prenatal cannabis exposure are still not well understood. Past data from clinical and preclinical research have been inconsistent, and given the drastic rise in the primary psychoactive constituent, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and changes in the popularity of non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD), these data may no longer be relevant.

In addition to changes in accessibility and potency levels of cannabis, administration routes have also evolved. Prevalence rates of general electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use among pregnant women in the U.S. is estimated to be between 5-14%. This includes the use of e-cigarettes to consume both nicotine and cannabis, as vaping has become one of the most popular routes of administration for both drugs. In fact, pregnant women, particularly young women, have the perception that the use of e-cigarettes (vaping) is safer than traditional smoking. Yet, little research has examined the health consequences resulting from any e-cigarette use during pregnancy, despite requests from medical professionals.

Another challenge in understanding the potential effects of cannabis exposure on fetal development is the high rate of polydrug consumption. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, half of pregnant women who report consuming cannabis also report drinking alcohol. Another common polydrug consumption pattern is that of cannabis and nicotine; pregnant women report using cannabis and tobacco in combination more than cannabis alone. Simultaneous use of THC and nicotine has been made more accessible for consumers due to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes. Importantly, accurate data reflecting the use of drugs during pregnancy, as well as exposure levels, are difficult to obtain as women who consume drugs frequently under-report their usage due to stigma. However, little is known about the potential associated risks of polydrug consumption during pregnancy in any combination, particularly when e-cigarettes are used. My research lab uses a preclinical model to characterize the potential effects of polydrug consumption (alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine) during pregnancy. Students will get an opportunity to gain experience in examining both biological and psychological changes and learn novel techniques in the ever-changing teratology field.

An important priority of my research program is to maintain a translational focus, promote community engagement, and reduce stigma surrounding drug use. I currently serve as an Advocacy Ambassador for the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), where we reach out to Congress to educate and inform them about current research being done in our fields. In addition, I enjoy communicating my research findings to the public through invited talks, public outreach events, and student health fairs. Lastly, I am dedicated to discussing my research in a way that promotes education about this topic rather than promoting a negative stigma surrounding drug use.

Why I became involved in Psychology

In all transparency, I originally took Psychology courses while I was auditioning to be a dance major; I had no idea what to do if I did not make the dance team. However, once I started taking Psychology classes, I realized how it blended all of my interests. Psychology encompasses so many topics and the content is always evolving. What solidified my choice to remain a Psychology major was when I took a Physiological Psychology course. I became really passionate about learning more about the biological underpinnings of our behavior and developed a massive interest in understanding how drugs can alter our biology and psychology. I decided not to finish my audition rounds to be a dance major.

Instead, I joined a research lab that studied how our social discounting and perception affects social smoking behaviors, attended my first research conference to present my work, and applied to graduate school to pursue a degree an M.A. and Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience. Throughout graduate school, I got to develop my research niche studying the effects of drug exposure during development and how it may affect brain and behaviors later in life. To this day, I am still fascinated by this field. I am so thankful that I get to teach and mentor other students who are passionate about Psychology and help guide them to pursue their own interests, whatever they may be and however they may change

Hobbies/Interests

In addition to research and teaching, I also love to:

  • Paint and craft
  • Play boardgames
  • Watch documentaries or terrible reality television
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Tap dance, kickbox, or spin
  • Try new restaurants, wineries, and breweries with my partner
  • Spend time with my family and friends, in person or virtually!

One thing I would like to see happen in my lifetime

I would like to experience a world where “being a scientist” is not associated with a particular race, sex, gender, or upbringing.

The theorist/approach I most agree with

No matter how advanced you are in your career, you should always be learning. I truly believe that the more you know about a subject, the more you should realize that you do not know everything. I approach every research and teaching experience with this outlook so that I always have room to develop and improve.

My advice to students

My advisor and friend once told me, “You have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow.” Anytime I am scared about taking a chance, I repeat this mantra; there are many opportunities I would have missed out on if I let my fear rule my decisions.

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