A neuroscientist investigates the drivers of depression

Devin Rocks has always been drawn to the deep mysteries of the brain. When several friends at his high school in Queens, New York, experienced anxiety and depression, his interest in how the brain works—and why things sometimes go awry—only intensified.

“It’s the organ we know the least about, by far,” he says. In his junior year at Fordham, he started conducting research with biology professor Marija Kundakovic, Ph.D., who studies the female brain.

“Many neuroscience studies, even now, are conducted primarily on male animals,” says Rocks, who completed a bachelor’s degree in integrative neuroscience in 2017 and earned a doctorate in biology from Fordham last spring. But women are about twice as susceptible to depression and anxiety than men, and hormonal fluctuations could be part of the reason why, Rocks says.

His doctoral research built on the Kundakovic Lab’s previous finding that when estrogen levels drop in mice, anxiety and depression-related behaviors increase. Rocks, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Weill Cornell Medicine, identified a molecule that seems to be key for mediating changes in gene expression that are linked to the rodents’ behavioral symptoms—a finding that could help pave the way for sex-specific treatments for anxiety and depression, according to Kundakovic, who says that Rocks’ research will be of “great relevance for women’s mental health.”