Neuroscience researcher Hannah Elam recently received the prestigious T32 fellowship which will fund her project to look at the mechanisms that underlie psychosis and ways to treat it.
Elam works in the lab of Dr. Daniel Lodge who recently received a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to look at PTSD and comorbid psychosis. According to a recent report, up to 64 percent of people with PTSD also report having psychotic symptoms.
“A lot is known about PTSD and comorbid depression and anxiety, but less is known about comorbid hallucinations and delusions,” she said. “We will be looking at whether an FDA approved drug, Suvorexant, which has been approved for insomnia, may be able to help treat psychosis and PTSD.”
Elam first became interested in how drugs affect the brain during her psychopharmacology class in college. She decided to look up the degree that her professor had and found out that he had a Ph.D. in Neuroscience which inspired her to do the same.
After college, she became interested in mental health counseling and learned more about what it was like to interact with patients who suffer from psychiatric disorders and drug addiction.
“I realized that I was more interested in the science,” she said.
This led her to return to university to finish her second bachelor’s degree– the first in Psychology at UT Austin and her second in Molecular Biology at Texas Lutheran University.
Elam began looking for graduate schools in the Texas area because she wanted to stay local and she found the Neuroscience discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at UT Health San Antonio.
“There were a lot of labs that studied psychiatric disorders and drugs of abuse, which are two areas of research I’m interested in. I also found everyone here to be really collaborative, so I felt that this was a good fit for me.”
Elam’s project uses behavioral assays, including prepulse inhibition and stimulant-induced locomotor activity, as well as in-vivo electrophysiology to study PTSD and comorbid psychosis.
“Prepulse inhibition is a measure of sensorimotor gating, which people with psychosis show deficits in,” she said. “In this experiment rats are exposed to a prepulse sound, immediately before a louder sound. The idea is that the small prepulse sound should decrease the startle response to the following, larger sound. However, in both humans and rodents modeling psychosis-like behavior, this prepulse fails to inhibit the startle response. In other words, less inhibition is seen in individuals with psychosis.”
She also explained that humans with psychosis are more sensitive to psychomotor stimulants, such as amphetamine.
“We can measure this in rats by recording their locomotor activity before and after administration of a psychomotor stimulant,” she said. “You can see that the rats that were stressed and treated with a control moved significantly more after the psychomotor stimulant and this was reversed in stressed rats treated with Suvorexant.”
Next, she will be looking at how the same stressors affect dopamine neuron activity.
“We will be using in-vivo electrophysiology to measure the dopamine activity in stressed rats, then see if we can reverse increases in activity with Suvorexant.”
Elam presented her research at this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference along with The Department of Pharmacology’s Annual Graduate Student Symposium.
Besides research, Elam serves as the secretary for the Graduate Student Association and is a member of the Women in Science Development Outreach Mentoring (WISDOM) student group.
“We spend a lot of time in lab so it’s nice to hang out with other students outside of school,” she said.
In the future, Elam would like to stay in academia and find a position where she can teach and do research.
“I’ve had a lot of great teachers in my academic career and I’d like to be that for someone else.”
This article was written by Charlotte Anthony, marketing specialist at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health San Antonio. This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.