Engineering student combining computer science and medicine in research project on prenatal cannabinoid exposure

by Mitch Emmons

Although she will graduate with a degree in engineering, Lucy Seay, one of the 2021 undergraduate research fellowship recipients at Auburn University, is combining her studies in computer science and engineering with medicine to learn more about cognitive functions and cannabinoid exposure. The sophomore from Louisville, Kentucky, is developing software to measure and analyze cognitive responses in rodents exposed to cannabinoids – the illicit drug compounds found in marijuana. Her research project, “Investigating Mechanisms of Memory Deficits and Altered Neurotransmission in Prenatal Cannabinoid Exposed Rodents,” is being conducted under the guidance of Drs. Subhrajit Bhattacharya, Vishnu Suppiramaniam and Miranda Reed in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development in the Harrison School of Pharmacy. The focus of their study is analyzing the effects of prenatal cannabinoid exposure on offspring.

In her project abstract Seay writes that with increased legalization of cannabis, its use during pregnancy is expected to rise. “Clinical studies have shown prenatal cannabinoid exposure (PCE) results in residual cognitive deficits in offspring. Despite the rise in PCE, there is little understanding of the comprehensive molecular mechanisms responsible for learning and memory deficits associated with PCE," she notes. 

“My long-range goal is to understand how PCE affects cognition, and the goal of this proposal is to dissect the molecular mechanisms of memory deficits associated with PCE,” Seay said.

Seay became interested in the pharmacy study after attending a previous AU research symposium.

“I became interested in research when I attended Auburn’s virtual research symposium last fall and learned of all the interesting projects that were happening on campus,” Seay said. “After attending that conference, I met with one of the undergraduate research advisors and said I was interested in medicine and wanted to start getting involved in research in my undergraduate career.”

Seay says that her interest in brain functions, memory storage and neuronal biophysics are what drew her to this area of research.

“I reached out to Drs. Bhattacharya and Suppiramaniam and talked with him about my interest in medicine and how their work in brain functions and memory intrigued me,” Seay said. “I was selected to participate in their labs due to my background in computer science, which I am using to create software for data analysis.”

This research already has produced some early findings that show the effects of prenatal exposure to cannabinoids on the cognitive and neuro responses of offspring. Seay hopes to continue her study beyond her present fellowship.

“I have been interested in the medical field my whole life,” Seay said.

Her plans beyond Auburn are to attend medical school and pursue a career in pediatric surgery. Her medical goals include working on the advancements of surgical instruments and probes used in laparoscopic surgeries.

“I am very interested in helping to make those technologies less invasive, which in turn will reduce post-surgical complications and mean a shorter recovery,” Seay said.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DA046723. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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