New techniques for measuring brain chemicals could aid depression research
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
Parry Hashemi wants to know what’s going on inside our heads — neurochemically speaking, that is — and she and her research team are well on their way toward figuring out how to do it.
Her pioneering research on measuring neurochemical levels in the brain has far-reaching implications for treatment of depression and other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
“If you go to the doctor to manage your diabetes, they can test for certain things in your blood and know exactly where you are on a spectrum,” says Hashemi, an assistant professor of chemistry at USC. “But if you go to the doctor because you don’t feel happy, you’ll probably get a questionnaire to determine your level of depression. Why can’t we measure brain chemistry levels just like we do for insulin and blood sugar levels?”
Using her background in biomedical engineering and chemistry, Hashemi has developed novel methods for measuring important neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin and other brain signaling molecules like histamine and melatonin. These breakthroughs have been supported through $3 million in federal and private grants Hashemi has garnered since 2015, and her team’s findings have been acclaimed by several high-impact scientific journals.
“It took us years to develop the method for measuring serotonin, and now we have to develop an understanding of the ultra-complex biology behind it,” Hashemi says.
That understanding is vital because most antidepressant medications focus on altering serotonin levels, though scientists haven’t yet determined if decreases in serotonin cause depression or if depression causes serotonin levels to drop. Whichever the case, antidepressants don’t work for 70 percent of the roughly one in six Americans who take them, Hashemi says.
“It’s frustrating because my group has recently gotten a really good idea of why these antidepressants aren’t effective and how to improve them, but the National Institutes of Health and big pharmaceutical companies have lost interest in current antidepressant therapies because of the poor track record of the drugs,” she says. “We’re working on changing their minds.”
If you go to the doctor because you don’t feel happy, you’ll probably get a questionnaire to determine your level of depression. Why can’t we measure brain chemistry levels just like we do for insulin and blood sugar levels?
Hashemi wants to eventually commercialize a test for measuring serotonin levels and correspondingly develop more effective pharmaceutical therapy for neurological conditions such as depression and Parkinson’s that are linked to neurochemical imbalances.
Hashemi’s strong track record in research is complemented by an innovative approach to teaching. Instead of traditional lectures, her classes often discuss scientific papers about particular lab techniques and studies and the statistical models required to make them work.
“For an exam question, I might ask them to write a two-page proposal about designing a sensor to measure arsenic in real time in a municipal water system,” she says. “They can use their books and their notes to tell me which techniques they would use and how they might set up experiments. I want them to show me what they’ve learned, not just regurgitate a bunch of facts.”
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