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Undergrad studies prenatal methadone exposure

As an undergraduate in neuroscience, Rhea Marfatia’s honors thesis involved orchestrating a research project to study the long-term effects of prenatal opiate use.

That research has now become a line of study in the lab of her mentor, Marvin R. Diaz, associate professor of psychology. “Rhea is an excellent example of a highly motivated and driven student who will achieve great things in her career,” he says. “Her dedication was contagious and she made a significant impact in my research program.”

Marfatia first approached Diaz about his work when she was a freshman, and she became one of his research assistants as a sophomore. Diaz’s Alcohol and Development Lab, part of the Developmental Exposure Alcohol Research Center, looks at neurobiological, physiological and behavioral adaptations that occur during development as a result of alcohol, drug and stress exposure.

Marfatia initially researched prenatal ethanol exposure and its effects on anxiety-like behaviors in offspring by conducting breeding, drug exposures and behavioral and data analysis. After she received the Summer Scholars and Artists award in the summer of 2019, she designed her own research project involving prenatal methadone exposure and its effects on learning and memory in offspring.

“The opioid epidemic is obviously increasing at an alarming rate, and there are understudied aspects in pregnant women and the effects on their offspring,” Marfatia says.

Methadone, a medication used to treat opioid use disorder, can also be prescribed for pain management. Although in utero exposure to opioids does not cause birth defects, some babies may experience withdrawal, also known as neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome. Methadone maintenance therapy in pregnant women can help improve opioid withdrawal in newborns. However, the long-term effects from methadone maintenance therapy in the offspring on areas such as cognitive development, motor skills, physical growth and social/emotional status are not yet fully known.

In Diaz’s lab, Marfatia developed an animal model of prenatal methadone exposure and picked three specific age points (juvenile, adolescence and adulthood) to observe any learning and cognitive deficits as a result of exposure. Her research showed that effects didn’t become apparent until adulthood.

“It’s really exciting that the research is progressing past the framework that I created,” Marfatia says. “I didn’t have much experience or opportunity to work in research until I was in Dr. Diaz’s lab, but it really confirmed that it’s something I’m good at and something I’m interested in. I couldn’t have asked for a better professor and mentor. He knows how to guide students to be the best version of themselves.”

Marfatia graduated summa cum laude in December 2020 with a B.S. in integrative neuroscience with distinguished independent work, an accomplishment completed in 3.5 years. She was on the Dean’s List each semester, worked as a teaching assistant, was part of the Binghamton University Emerging Leaders Program, and was the vice president of finance for Phi Delta Epsilon, the professional pre-medical fraternity.

Marfatia plans to enroll in Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo this fall. For now, she’s working full time on campus at Decker Student Health Services’ COVID-19 rapid testing clinic.

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