Photo of Joanna S. Fowler

Joanna S. Fowler

  • National Medal of Science
  • Chemistry

For her pioneering work in chemistry involving the synthesis of medical imaging compounds and her innovative applications of these compounds to human neuroscience, which have significantly advanced our understanding of the human brain and brain diseases including drug addiction.

Joanna Fowler on having more women in the field

The phrase ‘seeing inside someone’s mind’ often refers to personality traits, but for Joanna Fowler, it means something much more literal. She has spent her career conducting research on the human brain and studying diseases, especially addiction, through pioneering brain- imaging experiments.

She was the first to use PET scans (positron emission tomography) to map how repeated drug use changes the circuitry of the brain. Her results have helped scientists understand what makes drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine so powerfully addictive.

PET scans rely on chemical compounds, known as radiotracers, to ‘light up’ certain parts of the brain, so that their structure can be analyzed and studied. Fowler and her colleagues have designed several of these compounds over the course of their work, many of which are now commonly used in hospitals. She has also used PET scans to understand how therapeutic drugs affect the brain, a helpful pathway to the discovery and introduction of new drugs for the treatment of diseases like cancer.

Her research has even explored the genetic level of addiction. She has discovered that certain genes, specifically monoamine oxidase (MAO) genes, play a role in whether someone exhibits addictive behavior. These genes are responsible for an enzyme that breaks down dopamine­­– the brain’s feel good receptor­­–and have been found to be present in reduced levels in people like cigarette smokers. That could be one way to help explain the link between smoking, other addictions, and depression.

The driving force behind much of her research, she says, is the “concept of addiction as a disease of the brain and the need to try to understand it better.” She is optimistic that by better understanding the physiological changes wrought on the brain by disease, we can learn more effective ways to get help to the people that need it most. To Fowler, one of the most rewarding aspects of her career has been having “the opportunity to communicate the central role that chemistry and knowledge in general make on those things which make a difference to human beings.”