Photo: Christina Boemio

EQ-ing the Brain

Sparked by her DJ experience, Jenny Treweek Works to Reverse-Engineer Depression, PTSD, and Drug Addiction.

Jenny Treweek’s life as a DJ seemed fantastic. By day, she was a graduate student under a fume hood, examining brain tissue suspended in test tubes and modeling how drug addiction changes the brain. At night, she cracked her knuckles and took her post behind a motherboard of buttons that sent trance-inducing beats straight into temporal lobes while confetti rained down, dancers leaped to the ceiling and lasers shot across the dance floor. If it felt like a fantasy, it’s because it was one.

“I just remember being freaked out seeing people addicted to drugs in that scene, overdosing,” she said, recalling a brilliant M.D.-Ph.D. student she worked with dying from a methamphetamine overdose. It made her wonder: “How could smart, fully functioning people fall into the trap of becoming addicted to drugs? What is it that takes over?”

To find out, Treweek, the WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, will soon move to her new home in the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, one of the few facilities in the world dedicated to the convergence of engineering, physical and life sciences.

Treweek personifies convergence. She combines her background in chemistry, economics, systems neuroscience, optogenetics—a technique that uses light to control cells in living tissue—biomedical engineering and even music to examine the physiological function of stress-related neuropeptide circuits involved in drug addiction, depression and PTSD.

“I’m not just interested in novel drug therapies but in identifying maladaptive circuit behaviors in the brain, and then envisioning new technologies that could modify the signaling patterns that give rise to symptoms,” she said.

Scientists have long known that music reduces stress, pain and symptoms of depression. It improves cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning and neurogenesis – the brain’s ability to produce neurons. But the same music that stimulates some people to dance may move others to tears, depending on how the human body’s greatest DJ—our brain—EQs molecular level neural processes.

One major group of neurons that Treweek has studied for years is corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons.

“Think of them as the mastermind ensemble cells responsible for the body’s stress response,” she said. As it turns out, CRF neurons also play a major role in drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD and depression.

Treweek believes that if she can model CRFs’ signaling patterns in the brain, she could give doctors the ability to switch those signals off and on. Using minimally invasive technology, such as lasers, doctors would be able to temporarily turn off a specific group of brain cells, such as CRFs, to reverse drug-seeking behavior and even reduce the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Another of her lab’s missions is developing the chemistry for tissue engineering, or better ways to image tissue and obtain deeper molecular information on brain tissue.

“Normally when you image tissue, you get only one form of information—the protein content, RNA, or single targets,” Treweek said. “I want more multidimensional information.”

She wants to see the protein, the transcriptional profile, as well as the connectome: a comprehensive map of specific neural connections that reflect a particular disease state. She is also partnering with researchers at USC Keck and USC Pharmacy to design wireless wearable devices that will provide unprecedented insight into how PTSD and sleep disorders form in the human brain.

“From this understanding, we will be able to see how we can modulate these circuits to slowly pull people out of addiction and disease symptom by symptom,” she said.