Alexandra Greb, a UC Davis senior in pharmaceutical chemistry from Danville, California, is a co-author on a new study exploring how hallucinogenic drugs affect the structure and function of neurons. The research could lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety and related disorders.
“We’re teasing out the effects of these compounds on a molecular level,” Greb said.
Under the direction of David Olson, assistant professor in the departments of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular medicine, Greb investigated the timing and mechanisms of a wide range of fast-acting antidepressants, including well-known psychedelic compounds such as LSD and MDMA. In a paper published on June 12 in the journal Cell Reports, the research team documented structural changes that could suggest that psychedelics are capable of repairing the circuits that are malfunctioning in mood and anxiety disorders.
“People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis. What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine,” said Olson, who leads the research team. Ketamine, an anesthetic, has been receiving a lot of attention lately because it produces rapid antidepressant effects in treatment-resistant populations, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fast-track clinical trials of two antidepressant drugs based on ketamine.
Discovering a passion for research
Greb joined Olson’s lab as a sophomore. “Research was something I was always interested in when I came to UC Davis, and I wanted something challenging,” she said. “I never imagined how far it would take me.”
Nearly 40 percent of UC Davis undergraduates participate in research, and the campus offers them many opportunities to showcase their work. Greb presented her findings twice at the campuswide Undergraduate Research Conference, in addition to the Department of Chemistry’s Miller Symposium and Larock Undergraduate Research Conference. She was also awarded a Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship to support her research; and she won the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research among other awards.
For Greb, working in Olson's lab set her solidly on the path to a research career. “Research has offered me a way to find the real-life applications of what I’m learning about in my classes, and has also inspired me to pursue research in future. I have really enjoyed what I’ve worked on so far.”
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— Becky Oskin, content strategist for the College of Letters and Science