Rebecca Price, PhD, and Kymberly Young, PhD, Receive the Laurel E. Zaks Memorial Fund Award for Novel Treatments for Depression and Suicidality

We are delighted to announce dual recipients of the Laurel E. Zaks Memorial Research Fund award: Rebecca Price, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Kymberly Young, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry. The Laurel E. Zaks Fund, established in March 2019, supports Pitt Department of Psychiatry research pertaining to depression and suicide.

Dr. Price’s research focuses on how the mind processes information in anxiety, depression and suicidality. As a graduate student of psychology, Dr. Price encountered emerging research on the potential of the fast-acting drug ketamine to alleviate symptoms of treatment-resistant depression. People with severe depression who receive an infusion of ketamine have shown a substantial decrease in symptoms after only 24 hours, although the alleviation of symptoms also generally dissipates within a few days. “One possible use for this drug is as a tool to buy time during a suicidal crisis. In those circumstances, we can’t afford to wait weeks for medications or psychotherapy to take effect,” Dr. Price said. 

Because of practical limitations in the use of ketamine infusions as a long-term solution, Dr. Price became interested in ketamine’s effect on neuroplasticity in the brain. Dr. Price hypothesized that ketamine might provide an opportunity to introduce new, protective learning during the brief window when plasticity is elevated. Dr. Price developed a computerized intervention that targets a person’s self-image, a specific part of cognition that can become rigid and negative when a person is depressed or suicidal. As ketamine creates malleability in the appropriate circuit, Dr. Price uses this opportunity to repeatedly introduce positive information about the self, which might protect against the return of symptoms over a longer timeframe. “The brain changes pretty dramatically all the time,” Dr. Price explained. “We are interested in whether it can efficiently learn to protect against the return of depression.”

Ultimately, Dr. Price wants the app to reduce barriers to treatment. “It’s important to me that if something works, we are able to get it to people who need it most urgently.” 

Dr. Young’s research focuses on the treatment potential of neurofeedback, a non-invasive intervention for depression. In Dr. Young’s lab, patients with depression undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while recalling positive memories and concurrently viewing their own activity in the brain region known as the amygdala. The amygdala is a salience detector that perceives important environmental stimuli. 

However, many depressed people either struggle to recall positive memories, or the memories quickly turn negative. “Once they are able to recall positive memories, we try to bring these regions of the brain online that are involved in increasing perception of importance and reward. Activating and increasing activity in the right regions of the brain is what makes neurofeedback effective,” said Dr. Young. 

She is committed to making this intervention clinically available. An important component of this effort is developing a more accessible technology, such as an electroencephalogram cap that could be used by patients at home in conjunction with an app—less expensive and more accessible than fMRI. Dr. Young also highlighted the overwhelmingly positive response she’s received from study participants thus far: “People love doing this. It’s exciting because they see their brain activity and have a sense of control. Many people also find that their positive memory recall improves overall once they start using their amygdala.”

Congratulations to Dr. Price and Dr. Young!