Neuroscience student Alex McCoy is passionate about creating better antidepressants and also raising awareness about mental illnesses.
“Depression and psychiatric disorders are physical illnesses, it’s well-documented that there are physical changes to the brain that happen with them,” she explained.
McCoy is currently in the lab of Dr. Alan Frazer where she is working on using ketamine as a novel antidepressant.
“According to different studies, conventional antidepressants are only about 30 to 40 percent effective for patients” she said. “If you are severely depressed, you are told to take this pill and after several weeks, there’s only about a 60% chance you will feel better, how likely are you to continue treatment?”
Currently, ketamine is approved as a nasal-spray antidepressant but according to McCoy, we really need to know more about it.
“It’s a really strong antidepressant but it has strange side effects like hallucinations and out of body experiences. It is also a controlled substance which is Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act.”
One of the interesting things about ketamine is that it works much faster than other antidepressants so one of the things that McCoy is trying to learn is why it works so quickly and effectively.
She is also working on another project on one of the active ingredients of acne medicine, Accutane.
“It’s a small percentage of people [taking Accutane] who have reported pretty severe depression or even committed suicide. I started digging around in the literature and found that if you chronically stimulate this pathway it can have severe consequences.”
McCoy believes it’s important for patients to be aware of side effects when taking prescriptions.
“It’s a little alarming because we prescribe drugs that may be good for one thing but we don’t fully understand the side effects,” she said.
The goal of her research projects is to try to figure out which pathways are responsible for depressive behavior and if it is possible that blunting these pathways can be therapeutic.
Besides school, McCoy is the outreach ambassador of the Graduate Student Association and the treasurer of the Women in Science Development, Outreach, Mentoring (WISDOM) student club where she has had the chance to mentor young girls.
“Visibility is so important. I want to give girls the opportunity to see successful women and get inspired… I want every kid to be able to say ‘I can be a scientist too’.”