Alex Kwan joined the Meinig School as an associate professor in July 2022. Dr. Kwan comes to Cornell from Yale University, where he was a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine since 2013.
At Cornell, Kwan will apply neuroengineering approaches to the study of mental health. His lab develops optical imaging techniques to visualize cells and neuronal activity in the brain of mice. Using these cellular-resolution imaging tools, one focus of his lab is to study drug action in the brain. Specifically, psychiatric drugs such as psychedelics, including psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT, and ketamine can produce powerful effects on perception, mood, and cognition. Kwan is interested in understanding how these psychoactive compounds may modify the function and connectivity of neurons in the brain that ultimately underlie the drugs’ behavioral effects.
“Mental illnesses such as depression are a major issue in society today. However, the current treatments are either slow to work or do not work for all patients. The long-term goal of our work is to discover more effective and safer strategies for treating depression,” says Kwan.
The optical tools used by Kwan can be traced back to his days as a Cornell doctoral student in the laboratory of Watt Webb, the late applied physicist whose imaging techniques revolutionized how scientists observe biological dynamics deep within living tissue. It was in Webb’s lab that Kwan started working on nonlinear optical microscopes like the ones he uses today to observe the inner workings of the brain.
“Coming to Cornell is particularly exciting for me because of the potential collaborations,” says Kwan. “I cannot wait to talk with other optical microscopists to come up with new ways to visualize brain circuits, which I think will be tremendously useful for our research.”
Kwan’s research focus will be of particular value to the Cornell Neurotech initiative, which aims to develop technologies for revealing how individual brain cell’s activity in complex neural circuits underlies behavior. He also is expected to develop strong relationships with Weill Cornell Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, according to Marjolein van der Meulen, James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. “We are excited to have Alex join us as his neural circuit focus is unique and strengthens our neuroscience community within the school and across campus,” van der Meulen said. “He also adds to our strong imaging and instrumentation effort, bringing expertise in optogenetics, the stimulation and suppression of activity with light.”