Student Spotlight: Julio Alejandro Yanes, PhD student in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory

Julio Yanes stands next to the AU fMRI machineJulio Alejandro Yanes originally wanted to become a medical doctor, but when he discovered psychology and cognitive neuroscience, he found his true calling. 

“I think that when you look at medicine and what draws people to the profession, most often, it’s about figuring out how one can help people, or how to make things better for them. There’s this passion and compassion to make a difference, and when you realize that there are many different ways to do that, it changes your perspective. I realized I can study the biology of psychology using these new technologies and I haven’t looked back since,” Yanes said. 

Yanes is a graduate student working on his PhD in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory with Dr. Jennifer Robinson. He also works at the Auburn University Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or MRI) Research Center. Combining his lab work with MRI technology, Yanes uses neuroimaging to study cannabis and pain, specifically how cannabis impacts brain structure and function in regions important for processing pain. 

In a paper Yanes and Robinson recently published, their research suggests that cannabinoid-based medicines may serve as adjunctive or alternative treatments to opioid medicines for pain. From the impact statement, Yanes and his co-authors state that chronic pain is an ever-growing concern in the United States, costing an estimated $600 billion annually in lost labor and health care expenses. These (and other) conditions have resulted in an overreliance on opioid medicines. Results from their work provide some support that cannabinoids mitigate subjective pain among patients with pain-related clinical conditions. 

The study also noted that more research is needed. 

The paper, “Effects of cannabinoid administration for pain: A meta-analysis and meta-regression,” was published this year in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, in a special issue on therapeutic and abuse-related effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. The abstract can be found here

Recently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, under the National Institutes of Health, awarded Yanes a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research. The purpose of this program is to enhance the diversity of the health-related research workforce by supporting the research training of predoctoral students from population groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in the biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research workforce. This award, classified as an F31 award, is expected to enhance Yanes’s potential to develop into a productive, independent research scientist.

Yanes, a Miami, Florida native, is Cuban and Puerto Rican, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He spent several years volunteering with SAVE, South Florida’s leading organization dedicated to protecting people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) against discrimination. Yanes has also worked with other Miami- groups, including Miami-Dade Animal Services, Miami Children’s Hospital, and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He is the current Vice President of Pride on The Plains, the flagship pride organization working out of Auburn, Opelika, and Lee County. 

Recently, Chad Peacock, President of Pride on The Plains and friend to Yanes, was invited to be on the City of Auburn’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. 

“A few years ago, that task force didn’t exist. We like to think that we’ve helped with some of that change,” Yanes said. 

The main mission for Pride on The Plains, now entering its fourth year of operations, is to foster a sense of community among LGBTQ+ people in Auburn and Opelika. By hosting an annual parade and festival, Yanes said they give people something to look forward to, and provide events where everyone can just be themselves.

 Yanes says he’s felt supported at Auburn in both his academic pursuits, as well as his involvement with Pride on The Plains.
“When we had our inaugural parade in Opelika, I saw several faculty members from my department that were there with their families,” Yanes recalled. “They weren’t there to make a statement or to rally, they were there to watch a parade and show support for their community. Auburn has many faculty and staff members who are allies, and they come to many of our events just to smile and let us know we have their support.” 


Written by Vicky Santos | director of news and media services | College of Liberal Arts | Auburn University 

Last Updated: October 22, 2019