Scientist on cusp of mental illness treatment breakthrough
April 25, 2017 | By Colby Itkowitz
Rebecca Brachman adopted mini-celebrity status at the TED2017 conference after she told the audience she may have discovered a drug that could prevent mental illness.
For the 34-year-old neuroscientist at Columbia University, the positive reception to her research was surprising, yet she realized it shouldn’t be, given that 1 in 5 people have a diagnosable mental health condition in a given year. And given that the World Health Organization recently named depression the leading cause of disability globally, a scientist advancing preventive medicine should be treated with rock star status.
In 2014, Brachman was studying emotional behaviors in mice when she accidentally stumbled upon what could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in mental health pharmacology. She had given some mice the drug ketamine, also known as special K, which has been tried as an antidepressant. Because the drug was known to wear off in a few hours and funds were tight, she ended up using some of the same mice for another study testing mice’s resilience under chronic stress conditions.
The mice that previously had taken the drug were completely inoculated from the types of depressive, withdrawn symptoms they typically exhibited after being put through several weeks of major stress-inducing scenarios. She ran it again and again, only todiscover the ketamine seemed to enhance stress resilience enough to ward off triggers that often hurt their mental health.
If it works in humans, she envisions the drug she’s developing could be used to give to soldiers in war or aid workers in disaster zones to manage their emotions in the aftermath. She’s not trying to “to make super soldiers without empathy,” she said in an interview after her talk, but instead prevent the onset of future depression or anxiety all too common among those who experience and witness trauma.
Brachman was first drawn to neuroscience in college. Though she originally went to Oberlin College planning to major in poetry, she said she always had been interested in big ideas, idolizing people like Galileo and William Blake as a child, and the field of neuroscience was still ripe for new breakthroughs.
Now she stands at the precipice of what could be one of the biggest discoveries in mental health since anti-depressants were developed in the 1950s.
With diagnoses of cancer and most other physical diseases, there is hope because of the medical treatments available. But in mental health, current treatments mostly just suppress the symptoms and the how and why they work still are being studied. Brachman, like most Americans, said she’s seen firsthand the suffering of people in her life dealing with chronic depression or bipolar disorder and the hopelessness those illnesses can induce.
“I think once we have treatments for diseases, or preventions for them, it really changes the conversation. Things are stigmatized in part when there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re also mythologized when there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. “From my experience, it’s more common than not. I’ve shifted my perspective from some people have mental illnesses to almost everyone I’ve ever met has had some direct experience.”
Brachman’s drug, which she said she plans to begin testing on humans next year, would be designed for those at risk of developing symptoms due to a stressful job or experience, not for people genetically predisposed to mental illness. But Brachman believes that if she can show it is possible to prevent — not just treat or mitigate mental illness — then it could open the door for all kinds of new preventive medicine.
Though mental illness is just that, an illness, and deserves to be treated as such, Brachman also notes tstress resilience exists on a spectrum of severity depending on the individual and the circumstance, and there are lifestyle interventions that often can help manage symptoms. Like a patient with diabetes, their care is commonly paired with diet and exercise.
In her work with stressed out mice, exercise has been shown to be “almost as robust as the drugs” in managing their mental heath, she said. However, she is not suggesting people take their care entirely into their own hands if they are suffering from a serious mental illness. No one would tell a diabetic patient not to take their insulin. This is how she hopes her work can contribute to the shift in how people view the major health issue.
“How quickly we get any of these treatments will depend on how as a society we prioritize it,” she said. “If this is a problem that’s effecting that number of people … if other people can stand up and say this is important, we have to do something, it gives urgency to that aspect of the conversation.”