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Crucial Co-lab-oration

Psychology lab researches treatments for epilepsy, depression

By Megan Jonas

As an undergraduate student, Alisha Epps experienced a pivotal moment when she joined a behavioral neuroscience lab and began researching epilepsy. "That was the first time I understood that the two areas I was interested in, biology and psychology, actually have so much overlap," she says.

Epps studied the strong link between epilepsy and depression in graduate school and has continued that research for the past five years as a Whitworth assistant professor of psychology. Not only is she contributing to the scientific community, but she is providing students with the opportunity to have their own "aha!" moments in the lab.

In fall 2020, Epps began to research treatment strategies for co-occurring epilepsy and depression as part of a three-year grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

"Having epilepsy and depression simultaneously makes finding safe and effective treatments for both conditions an incredible challenge," she says.

Epps and her students are examining diet and exercise as potential therapies by using a unique rat model in Whitworth's vivarium, where live animals are cared for and studied. So far, the preliminary results have been encouraging. They also plan to eventually test a pharmaceutical treatment.

"To bring the work to Whitworth and see the research develop and get stronger has been really rewarding," Epps says. "Students frankly make it possible – there wouldn't be enough capacity to do this without them."

Psychology major Rachelle Kreger '21 says she wanted to be involved in Epps' research the moment she heard about it. "I knew her lab was a rare and incredible opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the mind and its biological processes," Kreger says.

Kreger's biggest takeaway as a research assistant is that meaningful insights are gained over time. "Research happens through small and consistent accomplishments," she says. "As someone who wants everything to happen right now, this has been a great lesson."

Kreger plans to become a mental health therapist but would like to conduct research too. "I just know I won't be satisfied unless I have that type of challenge," she says. "Regardless of what unfolds in my career, I am dedicated to the lifelong practice of helping people and healing my community."

A dedication to humanity is also what drives Epps. "We don't always envision scientists in white lab coats as a helping profession," she says, "but that desire to help somebody is what's motivating me."

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Timeline: Medical School