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Pre-doctoral Fellowship

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress is pleased to announce the recipients of the CSTS Doctoral Graduate Student Fellowship awards. This award is in support of a USUHS graduate student for innovative basic or clinical research studies leading to a PhD degree while addressing the primary mission of the CSTS, namely, to research the health consequences of trauma, disaster, and terrorism. This award provides two years of salary support while the doctoral student works on their doctoral studies.

2021 - Haley Spencer and Matthew Thompson

For her dissertation work, Haley Spencer is investigating the anti-inflammatory effects of the analgesic drug ketamine. Ketamine is frequently used in trauma situations due to its analgesic and anesthetic properties and has also recently been approved by the FDA for use in depression. Haley’s research focuses on how ketamine may modulate both systemic and central nervous system inflammatory markers in a preclinical model of traumatic brain injury (TBI). She is also evaluating ketamine’s effect on functional and behavioral deficits seen after TBI, and how these in turn may be related to increased inflammation due to injury. With the support of CSTS, she is interested in specifically examining PTSD-related behaviors in this preclinical model to further elucidate how inflammation may play a role in the relationship between these frequent comorbid conditions, and how the use of ketamine may affect these outcomes.


Matthew Thompson's dissertation research seeks to understand biopsychosocial factors that differentiate individual at risk for suicide attempts from those who think about suicide without ultimately acting on those thoughts. More specifically, he is interested in examining the extent to which biological risk indicators (brain structure, functional connectivity, and genetic contributions) aid in this differentiation above and beyond psychosocial risk indicators alone. For his dissertation, Matt will utilize a series of machine learning algorithms using a large dataset to compare brain structure and connectivity, genetic, and psychosocial risk indicators between two groups (1) adults with lifetime suicide attempt(s), and (2) adults with lifetime self-directed violence thoughts alone. His work, supported by the CSTS Fellowship, contributes to the CSTS missions of extending knowledge of the impacts of environmental factors on overall brain health and advancing trauma-informed care.

 2016 - Francis Djankpa

The 2016 CSTS Pre-doctoral Fellowship Award recipient is Francis T. Djankpa for his project “The KCC2 influence on neuronal migration in a ferret model of cortical dysplasia.”

Francis Djankpa

I am Francis Djankpa, a fourth year graduate student in the neuroscience program at USUHS. I started off my career by studying the broad aspects of animal life for my bachelor’s degree in Zoology in 2005 (University of Ghana). I then narrowed down to study the general functions of human systems for my MPhil degree in physiology in 2009 (University of Ghana). As part of my MPhil thesis, I assessed the sensitivity and efficacy of a Neurothesiometer as an alternative to the tuning fork in the clinical diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy in diabetic clinics in Ghana. In pursuant of a career in teaching and research, I accepted an appointment as a Physiology lecturer in a newly established medical school (School of Medical Sciences, University of Cape Coast, Ghana) where I taught undergraduate students in the Medical and Allied Health Sciences programs for 2 years (2010-2012). During this time I joined a team that investigated the effects of natural dietary supplements on obesity and diabetes using animal models. Our team found that regular ingestion of garlic lowers body weight and blood sugar levels and regular ingestion of natural cocoa powder lowers hemoglobin glycation in diabetic rats. In fulfillment of my passion, to reach out to rural folks, I established a non-governmental organization (Nterm-Ghana, since 2010. Under my leadership, Nterm-Ghana is reaching out to many communities with health, education and other developmental projects. Currently, I am training to become a neuroscientist with special focus on neocortical development and associated errors of brain malformation. This is a career progression that will enable me to pursue my ultimate goal of teaching and conducting research and mentoring students in neurosciences and related fields. I also aspire to lead a nationwide campaign in Ghana to develop the study of neurosciences in collaboration with other international organizations.

Description of grant

Cortical dysplasia is an interruption in development of the cerebral cortex that can manifest as a range of problems, from epilepsy, and schizophrenia to autism spectrum disorders. Although genetic factors may play a role in the etiology of cortical dysplasia, the environment also often alters CNS development. The CSTS is focused on global health threats. Similarly, our project studies environmental toxins that influence brain development. We concentrate on toxins that alter expression of KCC2, a chloride channel that plays an important role in neuronal development. Methylazoxy methanol acetate (MAM) and bisphenol A (BPA) are both examples of such environmental toxins. MAM is a natural component of cycad seeds, which are ingested in tropical countries. BPA is widespread and used in producing polycarbonate, epoxy resins that line food cans, and dental sealants. BPA is known to downregulate KCC2 while AM upregulates KCC2. We study the influence of MAM and BPA on brain development measuring their effect on KCC2 expression as an outcome. We developed a model of cortical dysplasia using MAM, which disrupts development of the neocortex when administered intraperitoneally to pregnant ferrets on gestational day 33. The observed effects in our animal model include altered distribution of inhibitory interneurons and altered expression of GABA receptors. We also observed specific disruption of the migration of interneurons into the cortical plate and increased expression of KCC2. To better understand the effects of altered levels of KCC2 induced by MAM, we propose to (i) describe the distribution and expression of KCC2 in ferret cortex during development using immunohistochemistry; (ii) assess the effect of KCC2 manipulation (with MAM and BPA) on features (speed and exploratory behavior) of migrating interneurons using in vitro live imaging assay; (iii) investigate the mechanisms of action of MAM on KCC2 upregulation in our animal model using bisulfite sequencing.