Meet the Researcher

Bryan Roth: Understanding Drugs, Understanding the Brain

  • Published2 May 2019
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Bryan Roth’s research interests were inspired at a young age, not only by the chemistry sets he enjoyed playing with but also by his mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a child. As a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine, Roth’s lab has two primary focus points: schizophrenia medications and psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin. His lab examines how these medications and drugs work in the brain to ultimately design more effective and safer treatments for psychiatric diseases.



Bryan Roth: I’m Bryan Roth. I’m professor of Pharmacology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Medicine.

Screen Text: What’s your earliest memory that first sparked your interest in neuroscience?

BR: So, I actually played with a chemistry set when I was probably in third or fourth grade. So, this was back in the era when people would sell Christmas cards door to door. And if you sell enough Christmas cards then you could basically order something out of this catalog. And so, I did it and I ordered a chemistry set. And then, we basically used it to kill plants in the backyard, that sort of thing. So just sort of playing with chemicals.

But, on a more serious note actually, when I was probably five or six my mother had schizophrenia and that really had a huge impact on my life. And, was basically the thing that drove me to get into the sort of research that I do right now

Screen Text: What do you study as a neuroscientist?

BR: So, there are basically two main areas of research in my lab right now. The first is obviously, since I’m a physiatrist and specialize for many in the treatment of schizophrenia, we’d really like to understand how those medications work at the most fundamental level. We’re using that information to try to design basically safer and more effective medications.

And the other side is, we study medications or drugs that are called psychedelics. Drugs like LSD, Psilocybin, Mescaline, Salvia. So, in a sense we study drugs that make people sane and drugs that make people crazy. And, the idea is, if we can find some commonalities and differences in their actions, that ultimately this will help us to come up with safer and more effective medications for psychiatric diseases.

Screen Text: What can we learn about the brain by studying psychoactive drugs like LSD?

BR: The idea that’s held commonly by scientist that study drugs like LSD, is that since these drugs have this profound effect on the way people perceive reality and profoundly affect our consciousness. That if we understood how those drugs work, we might understand very fundamental things about human awareness and consciousness. If you think about anything that is central to neuroscience or human existence, it’s awareness. And these are drugs that profoundly affect how people perceive reality. So, it’s my contention if we understand how these drugs work, that will tell us something very fundamental about the human condition from neuroscience perspective.

Screen Text: How would studying these drugs lead to improved treatments for psychiatric disorders?

BR: The idea that studying these drugs may ultimately lead to better treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders, is an idea that’s a bit more controversial. If we go and look at the history of drugs like LSD, when it was first developed or discovered in the 1950s, the idea among many psychiatrists was that LSD would induce a model psychosis or schizophrenia like condition. And, that if we could develop drugs that blocked the effect of LSD, they ultimately might be useful in treating schizophrenia. That actually turned out to be true. So, it turns out the most effective medications that we have today for treating schizophrenia are very effective at blocking the effects of LSD. On the other hand, drugs like LSD haven’t really given us any insight into the condition of schizophrenia. I would say it’s not entirely clear that these drugs will give us insight into disease, but they have led to the creation of safer and more effective medications. Basically, looking for drugs that block their effect turns out to be a very effective way for making medications that work in people.

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