Student-researchers explore Parkinson’s, Major depressive disorder

Senior Zoe Randall and junior Sydney Meeker spent their summers researching diseases that impact millions of people for the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI).

They partnered with Cornell College Professor of Biology Barbara Christie-Pope and scientists at the University of Iowa.

Major depressive disorder

Randall worked in the lab of Mark Niciu, exploring the use of Ketamine as a treatment for major depressive disorder.

“We cultured cells from a brain tumor and then we differentiated or turned them into neurons,” Randall explained. “We were looking to see how Ketamine and other antidepressants would change cellular respiration in those neurons.”

Their goal was to see how ketamine affects the body to better understand it as a treatment option. 

Zoe Randall working with Mark Niciu at the University of Iowa (Photo Courtesy University of Iowa)
Zoe Randall working with Mark Niciu at the University of Iowa (Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa)

“Ketamine has just been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of major depressive disorders that cannot be treated with anything else,” Christie-Pope said. “It’s probably going to revolutionize the treatment. The problem with ketamine is that there are still a lot of questions about how it works. That’s what Zoe Randall was involved with studying.” 

Randall says this disease, which causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest, impacts more than 16% of the world population. 

“There isn’t a very good treatment for it,” Randall said. “Before Ketamine, only about 40% of people have significant results from treatment. So it’s a field of study that needs a lot of work and that we don’t understand very well.” 

Randall participated in CSRI during the summer of 2018 with Cornell College Associate Professor of Chemistry Jai Shanata ’05. She said it was great to take the skills she learned on the Hilltop and use them in the lab at the University of Iowa. She also says she now has a much better understanding of what goes into research for drugs that people are prescribed every day.

Parkinson’s disease

Meeker worked very closely with Christie-Pope to examine the causes of Parkinson’s disease in the lab of Rob Cornell at the University of Iowa.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder in which brain cells progressively die, causing tremors, movement issues, and speaking difficulties. About 50,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the U.S. each year.

“Parkinson’s disease is a very prominent disease and there are currently no effective treatments,” Meeker said. “In order to develop these treatments, you need to better understand the disease.”

Sydney Meeker (center) working with Barbara Christie-Pope and Rob Cornell at the University of Iowa.
Sydney Meeker (center) working with Barbara Christie-Pope and Rob Cornell at the University of Iowa. (Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa)

Meeker worked with zebrafish for the summer, which the lab uses as a model system to better understand movement disorders. Mutant zebrafish, which don’t have stripes, lack the same cell that is missing in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, causing them to swim very poorly. 

The scientists in the lab want to know if the same thing that is happening to the fish is happening to those with Parkinson’s disease.

“They narrowed it down to an ion channel, and that ion channel allows ions to go across the membrane of these particular nerve cells,” said Christie-Pope, who has researched Parkinson’s since 1988. “What Sydney Meeker and I looked at was another ion channel, a channel specifically for magnesium, that may be linked to the one that has the movement deficit. Magnesium deficits have been implicated in Parkinson’s disease patients. They tend to have lower levels of magnesium in their brain.” 

Meeker says she learned several new techniques and appreciated working with other scientists on an issue that impacts so many people.

“I think it’s a good experience to help with potential opportunities later on, such as working in another lab after college,” Meeker said. “It is also great for further lab work that I’ll have with my courses here at Cornell.”

Christie-Pope enjoys working with the students at Cornell and helping them make connections with researchers at the University of Iowa where she is a senior fellow in Rob Cornell’s lab through the FUTURE  program, which connects scientists from Iowa’s smaller liberal arts colleges and those at the University of Iowa. 

“This research is really exciting for the students,” Christie-Pope said. “It’s always nice to see the big wow–they really never thought about this before and never really thought they’d be involved in something like this. It will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

 Zoe Randall (left), Barbara Christie-Pope (center), and Sydney Meeker (right) (Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa)
Zoe Randall (left), Barbara Christie-Pope (center), and Sydney Meeker (right) (Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa)