As a scholar and student leader, Krittika Krishnan ’12 certainly made her mark on Mary Baldwin as the first international student and first student in the Program for the Exceptionally gifted elected Student Government Association president. Now she continues to put the research and leadership skills honed at Mary Baldwin to work in graduate school, where she served on a team at the University of Texas looking at hormonal interactions and drug abuse.
Her research was recently featured on nature.com and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
Krishnan’s work at UT Austin in the behavioral neuroscience department began with the study of cocaine abuse.
“In this time, I have gained knowledge of the techniques of immunohistochemistry, micro-dialysis, stereology, tissue collection and sectioning and surgical techniques, to name a few,” Krishnan said. “In my third year, I taught Psychology 301 — Introduction to Psychology — as an instructor to undergraduates. I had full reign of the course and received some great instructor reviews and feedback.”
She and the team used rodents to investigate the role of the medical pre-optic area — a region of the hypothalamus — hypothesizing that it plays a significant role in modulating the effects of cocaine. The same region of the brain, Krishnan explained, has a vital role in regulating naturally rewarding behaviors involving eating and having sex. By deactivating that part of the brain using neurotoxic legions, the team was able to confirm that it does, in fact, play a role in the psychoactive effects of cocaine abuse.
The next step in the research, Krishnan said, was to determine whether the pre-optic area is part of the larger system of natural reward — and if it communicates with other brain regions that regulate both natural and drug reward response.
“My role in this project was using immunohistochemistry — staining sections of the brain for protein —and stereological techniques — quantifying cell numbers in a 3D slice of brain tissue — to determine the type of projections between these two brain regions,” she said. “We found that a large number of cells in the pre-optic area that project to other areas express sex steroid hormone receptors, such as estrogen and progesterone receptors, indicating that there is a potential for these ovarian hormones to interact with the euphoric effects of cocaine.”
Krishnan explained further that the final experiment definitively portrayed that hormones — namely, estradiol — in the pre-optic area increase the euphoric effects of cocaine as measured by dopamine release.
Krishnan’s interests have shifted since the research was published and she has switched labs. She is now investigating the effects of endocrine disrupting compounds, such as BPAs in plastics, on the stress and reproductive systems in rodents.
“Hopefully, I will be graduating in two years with a PhD in behavioral neuroscience,” she said. “ Afterward, I would like to continue doing research and teach as well, hopefully at a small liberal arts college similar to Mary Baldwin.”